Forging an effective partnership: India-Bangladesh-Bhutan

The Indian government has progressed on the path of ensuring that bilateral relations with our immediate neighbours are cordial.

While a long-pending land boundary agreement with Bangladesh was signed and implemented only half-a-decade back, India has moved swiftly to aid Sri Lanka in the growing debt crisis with China.

Though Bhutan has remained firmly within the Indian government’s ambit of foreign policy, it is still unsure about the Motor Vehicles Agreement to be signed between the sub-regional BBIN grouping (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal).

In order to discuss the next steps to operationalise the agreement for the free flow of goods and people between the four countries, a meeting of minds was organised last week.

Interestingly, the BBIN meeting was the first in-person meeting since the pandemic struck in February 2020. The officials from the four countries finalised the wordings of two separate protocols aimed at passenger and cargo movement with an additional enabling agreement.

Such an enabling Memorandum of Understanding goes a long way even without the Bhutan’s approval yet. Naturally, this pending ratification from the Bhutanese government would be required to implement the project in full flow.

India is always appreciated the common shared history and culture that exists between Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and India. By operationalising the MVA Passenger and Cargo Protocol, a significant step has been taken to realise the full potential of trade and people-to-people connectivity between the BBIN.

Fostering greater sub-regional cooperation has been marked as the way forward for India. However, the Bhutan government’s concerns over sustainability and environment while dealing with this project have also been accorded due sensitivity and importance at this juncture.

Prioritising remaining a carbon-negative country, it is unlikely that Bhutan will change its position on the subject even though India remains hopeful that it would.

Even though progress on the project has been gradual, several trial runs have now been successfully held on the Bangladesh-India road route for passenger buses and cargo trucks.

Contentious issues like insurance and bank guarantees, along with the size and frequency of freight carriers into each country, are also up for finalisation now. International agencies, including the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, have evinced interest in the project.

To safeguard the interests of both countries, an immediate upgradation of physical and commercial infrastructure on the India-Bangladesh border has been successfully undertaken over the last two years. In fact, land as well as sea ports have been prioritised as part of the $750 million scheme of the South Asian Subregional Economic Cooperation Programme of the World Bank.

In an unfortunate chain of events, the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a situation where green exports to Bangladesh have been affected immediately. Since India has been able to maintain a surplus of wheat, Bangladesh has requested that some form of aid may be given at the earliest.

Even though Bangladesh has been steadily buying more wheat from India over the last few years (60 pert cent of Indian wheat has been bought by Bangladesh alone in the current financial year), India has also begun to see a major uptick in exports across the globe.

Recently, India also evacuated a Bangladeshi student as part of India’s ongoing mission to bring its citizens out of Ukraine. After India’s successful first stint in the rescue operation, neighbouring countries like Nepal have also reached out to India for help.

Over the last two years, the relationship between India and Bangladesh has improved with the latter launching its nationwide Covid vaccination drive after India’s contribution of 2 million vaccine doses.

Celebrating the golden jubilee of its independence from Pakistan and the centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it was decided that December 6 would henceforth be commemorated as ‘Maitri Divas’ between the two countries since India had recognised Bangladesh 10 days before the liberation took place.

With this constant improvement in relations and numerous projects coming to fruition, a great deal has been achieved between the countries. It is natural to expect the relations, trade and people-to-people connect between these countries to improve further.

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