July 21, 2020, New Delhi
In recent years, eastern South Asian Countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN sub-region) have realised that connectivity comes before trade, stated Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International.
“It is now time to leverage this realisation and political will to not just attract investments but also map synergies among various initiatives of organisations such as by the Asian Development Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency and the World Bank Group, among others.”
“It is also needed to ensure that the political momentum percolates down to grassroots levels in order to effectively balance the socio-economic and environmental costs and benefits. Considering the communities, private sector and local governments as essential pillars of connectivity can significantly help people on the ground not just to appreciate the larger political will but also understand the value of cooperation,” he added.
He remarked so while opening a webinar organised by CUTS on “Infrastructure and Development Needs for Multi-Modal Connectivity in the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) sub-region.”
It was a part of a joint project on multi-modal connectivity in the BBIN sub-region, implemented by CUTS International, Bangladesh’s Unnayan Shamannay, Bhutan Media and Communications Institute and Nepal Economic Forum. The project is supported by the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom with the Asian Development Bank as a ‘knowledge partner’.
Moderating the session, Swarnim Wagle, Chairman, Institute for Integrated Development Studies and Former Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission of Nepal, said that “in response to the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the emerging paradigms of trade and investment need to focus on normalising as well as further scaling up people-to-people linkages in a sustainable manner while addressing quality and efficiency challenges.”
He further added that “the removal of connectivity related asymmetries can help land-locked Nepal, Bhutan and northeast India gain a lot from infrastructure-led connectivity initiatives.”
In doing so he insisted on “bolstering shared infrastructure investments, financial cooperation and digitalisation efforts, including emboldening of soft power through more people-to-people ties, for example, through academic exchanges.” He added that we need to focus more on clean and renewable energy while managing the regional commons from Himalayan waters to regional eco-systems.
“As a way to advance infrastructure connectivity and address developmental challenges including those resulting in from the COVID-19 pandemic, the G20 Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment should be fundamental to regional or sub-regional response,” said Shohei Hara, Director General, South Asia Department, Japan International Cooperation Agency. He remarked so while making a presentation on ‘JICA and Corridor Development in South Asia’.
Echoing those Principals and Japan’s role, he stated that the time is ripe not just to normalise but maximise the positive impacts of current and potential infrastructure to achieve sustainable growth and development, raise economic efficiency in view of life-cycle cost, integrate environmental considerations in infrastructure investments, build resilience against natural disasters and other risks, and build-in social considerations in infrastructure investments other than strengthening the overall infrastructure governance.
In his presentation, Arun Roy, an Expert on River Engineering and Inland Waterways Transport, stressed upon the need to unleash the scope to optimise sub-regional linkages between waterways and industrial corridors.
“It is important to improve national and sub-national access as well as to maximise their linkages with the larger world in a cost-effective and environmental friendly manner. It is also important to focus on micro connectivity initiatives such as those by smaller boats between India and Bangladesh to boost public confidence,” he said.
According to Selima Ahmad, Member of Parliament of Bangladesh and President, Bangladesh Women Chambers of Commerce and Industry, “Connectivity is increasingly becoming one of the most important tools to reduce poverty and maintain stability in the sub-region. In doing so, we need to manage vested interests who pose challenges to the grassroots needs and the larger political will.”
Shakti Sinha, Director, Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Policy Research and International Studies, MS University, Vadodara, India, stated that “it is essential to adopt an incremental approach to figure out and address implementation challenges facing the sub-region. Other than improving project and process values, we have to do it amid varying political economy considerations of the countries involved.”
Rajeev Singh, Director General, Indian Chamber of Commerce, Kolkata, India, said that “it is an imperative to capture success stories of cooperation between and among the BBIN group of countries.”
According to him, the intent is there at the government level but local trader bodies and other cross-border interest groups have been posing implementation challenges. He talked about huge improvement over the years in terms of trade and trust but still challenges are there in involving the real stakeholders in the process.
He also pressed upon the need to build absorptive capacities at the local level so that people can enjoy more benefits from different trade-related schemes and infrastructure initiatives. He highlighted the dominant presence of tourism and horticulture in the region, which need to be encouraged by linking them with connectivity initiatives.
Talking about the post-COVID scenario in the BBIN sub-region Sandeep Raj Jain, Economic Affairs Officer, Transport Division, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, shed some lights on key lessons which, according to him, is about realising the importance of digitalisation.
He added that from a longer-term perspective international freight transport operations need to be reset to a digital mode.
Ugyen Penjore, Managing Editor, Kuensel Newspaper, Bhutan, supported that by underlining that “we need to get more digitalised and focus more on addressing ground realities and prioritise or even augment the implementation of the projects which are long promised but yet to be realised.”
According to Apekshya Shah, Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations and Diplomacy, Tribhuvan University, Nepal, “economic integration cannot be the only parameter to judge the importance of relations between the countries. This sub-region shares a common sense of identity and purpose and that needs to be weaved with the connectivity initiatives so that they become more resilient.”
She underlined that the BBIN cooperation initiative is a positive step towards greater concentration of economic development efforts, which will mutually benefit all the member countries. “The entire process requires policy coordination at the different levels, which is complicated but needs to be managed and these countries should focus on durable relations rather than opportunistic arrangements.”
This webinar, the last in a series of three Project Inception Webinars, was organised to launch the project by involving its stakeholders from the very beginning so as to create a better-informed political economy discourse about the values that multi-modal connectivity can bring to the people on the ground.
Among other objectives, the project will identify investment opportunities for fostering multi-modal connectivity developments in the BBIN sub-region. It will also explore how existing and future connectivity initiatives can be better leveraged to strengthen transport and trade linkages between South and Southeast Asia, which is essential for creating new hubs for global value chains.
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