Overland connectivity between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal is poised to get a significant boost with the four countries signing a Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, a fortnight ago. The agreement, which provides for “seamless movement of people and goods across borders,” is expected to improve connectivity, reduce transport costs, boost travel and trade, and facilitate people-to-people contact among the four countries.
India has bilateral MVAs with Nepal and Bangladesh. A multilateral MVA will enhance benefits exponentially. With roads expected to become economic corridors, intra-regional trade is expected to increase by 60% and that with the rest of the world by 30%, the joint statement issued after the signing of the MVA said.
An MVA involving all members of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) was expected to be signed during the Kathmandu Summit in November last year. However, that ambitious plan did not materialize as Pakistan refused to sign the agreement.
Frustrated with Pakistan’s repeated blocking of initiatives envisaging greater economic integration of the region, India appears to have decided to go ahead whether or not Islamabad comes on board. It pursued the MVA agreement with other interested countries.
The SAARC Declaration, which encouraged member-states to explore sub-regional connectivity arrangements, opened space for interested countries to pursue the plan. The outcome of these efforts culminated in the four-nation MVA.
Afghanistan is keen to sign on to an MVA. During his visit to Delhi in April, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed overland trade and the signing of an MVA. Since Pakistan does not allow Indian goods overland access to Afghanistan and as it remains opposed to an MVA with India, an India-Afghanistan MVA will not take off unless Pakistan too gets on board.
Pakistan’s obstructionism hasn’t dimmed connectivity ambitions in other countries. Recently, India’s Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, announced that India was examining the feasibility of road connectivity between India and Sri Lanka across the Palk Strait. The plan involves a sea corridor and an under-sea tunnel. Should this plan materialize, Sri Lanka will be able to access other South Asian countries overland via India.
Indeed, South Asia is eyeing seamless travel and cargo movement with Southeast Asia. India is reported to have finalized an MVA with Myanmar and Thailand, which is expected to provide Indian goods easy access to Southeast Asian markets.
With the signing of the MVA, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal have taken only the first step towards greater regional connectivity. The road ahead is not smooth. Road infrastructure is abysmal in the four countries and they will need to make major investment to overhaul this. Besides, the four countries will have to improve other infrastructure too such as power grids, railways, etc to be able to tap the full potential of the MVA. Can they overcome bureaucratic red tape to make travel and transport truly seamless?
Much work remains to be done. The MVA throws little light on route maps, location of permitted rest or recreation stops, tolls and check-posts. These need to be clarified. Importantly, it is silent on issues like fees, service charges and administrative costs. These have been left to be resolved bilaterally.
Rumbles of discontent are audible already in Bangladesh, where the question of according India transit rights is a controversial subject. There are sections in Bangladesh which fear that India is using the MVA to acquire transit rights. Should such anxieties snowball into angry protests, the MVA will hit a major roadblock.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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