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Bhutan’s opposition protests regional transport deal

The Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal motor vehicle agreement faces opposition despite its ratification in Bhutan’s ongoing parliament session
<p>The Bhutanese Parliament in Session [image courtesy Bhutan National Assembly]</p>

The Bhutanese Parliament in Session [image courtesy Bhutan National Assembly]

Afraid of pollution and environmental destruction, the opposition party and members of the Bhutanese public oppose the ratification of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India (BBIN) motor vehicle agreement. The National Assembly, the lower house of the Bhutanese parliament, ratified the agreement, but in the face of stiff resistance. Of the 41 MPs present and voting, only 28 voted in favour of the agreement although the governing party has 32 MPs; ten MPs voted against the ratification, while three abstained.

Lowering barriers to trade

Transport ministers of the four countries signed the agreement in June 2015 in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The agreement has been ratified by all the other countries. The idea of the BBIN bloc was initially approved during the 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit held in Nepal in 2014. It came up as an alternative to a SAARC-wide transport agreement, which had stalled due to Pakistani reservations.

The BBIN motor vehicle agreement is supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has argued that it would lower non-tariff barriers and benefit all the countries involved. According to Wencai Zhang, Vice-President at ADB, these barriers make it cheaper for South Asian countries to trade with non-South Asian countries, than with each other. The motor vehicle agreement was seen as a first step in a regional trading bloc that would include joint power projects, including hydropower projects. According to the plan, the participating countries were supposed to negotiate, outline and finalise the necessary state-to-state or regional agreements by the end of 2015. A BBIN Friendship Motor Rally was even scheduled for October 2015.

Anxiety in Bhutan

Unusually, Bhutan objected. During the winter session of the parliament, the governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP) failed to secure enough votes for ratification, though it has a two thirds majority in Parliament. The vote for ratification was deferred to this session, while Tshering Tobgay, the prime minister, and key politicians reached out to constituencies opposed to the ratification.

Since the signing of the agreement, the Bhutanese public, especially Internet users, have openly criticised the Tobgay government for inviting what they call a grave threat to the country, while truckers and other drivers raised their concerns during public consultations. Pollution and destruction of the environment were some of the main concerns, followed by fears that Bhutanese truckers and bus drivers would lose business, and the roads would be clogged by an unprecedented number of vehicles. This was especially so since the frameworks of the agreement meant that any cargo vehicle registered in the four countries could cross the borders. With its tiny population, some Bhutanese felt they would be swamped.

Opposition says little gain, big losses

Opposition leader, Pema Gyamtsho told thethirdpole.net, “The question we have to ask is; is there a need of BBIN for a small country like Bhutan?” This was especially the case because environment conservation is a prime mandate in Bhutan’s Constitution, and it is one of the four pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH) based on which every developmental activity is drawn and implemented by the government.

Pema Gyamtsho, leader of the Oppositon [image courtesy Bhutan National Assembly]
Pema Gyamtsho speaking in Parliament [image courtesy Bhutan National Assembly]
Bhutan has a commitment to remain carbon neutral, and some environmentalists have said that joining BBIN would also make this difficult. According to the records of the Road Safety Transport Authority (RSTA) of Bhutan, the country had 75,829 vehicles in January 2016. But the vehicle numbers are increasing by 1,000 every month.

Pema Gyamtsho said, “We are concerned that because of our location, and size in terms of economy and population, number of vehicles, size and length of road — whether we have the absorption capacity to be able to participate actively and meaningfully as envisaged in that agreement.”

“Our main export is electricity, which does not have to depend on roads,” he said. “We don’t have many significant exports other than seasonal items like oranges, apple and vegetables, for which the present arrangement is adequate enough.”

“Economically we do not see any benefit from joining BBIN,” said the opposition leader. Environmentally it would be a disaster. There would be increased pollution including solid waste, and forests, water and land would come under severe pressure, he said. “We would not be able to enforce our otherwise strict regulations.”

Government assurances win first vote

Some of the political leaders were also concerned that it would jeopardise the country’s well-preserved culture and tradition, and would lead to increase in drug and human trafficking crimes.

The government, however, claims that it will be able to safeguard both the country’s environment and the transport industry by negotiating protocols, so that they would not automatically allow entry of vehicles. This would, though, defeat the very purpose of the agreement. The Kuensel, the main newspaper in Bhutan, ran an editorial on the issue, which, though it sounded sceptical, suggested that if the government manages to negotiate such protocols, it would be “a significant achievement”.

The nod by the lower house of Parliament is only the first step in the ratification process. The agreement will now have to be ratified by the upper house — called the National Council. Last month, the local leaders of the northern district of Paro wrote to the upper house requesting to vote against the agreement. Even if the National Council votes in favour of the agreement, various protocols under the agreement will have to be negotiated after that. It may be 2017 before the Bhutan government provides a response on the BBIN to other countries.