India hopes Bhutan will ratify vehicles pact

Opposition parties in Bhutan, wary of an increase in pollution, have been stalling the process

Updated - December 02, 2016 04:05 pm IST

Published - November 18, 2016 01:34 am IST - NEW DELHI:

Despite a vote in Bhutan’s National Council (NC) disallowing the sub-SAARC motor vehicle zone among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN), India hopes Bhutan will join the grouping “at an early date”, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said on Thursday.

Asked if the National Council’s decision on Wednesday — not to ratify the ‘Motor Vehicles Agreement’ (MVA), defeating the government’s proposition 13 votes to 2 — was a setback for India, MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup said, “We hope that the Royal Government of Bhutan will be able to complete necessary internal procedures for operationalisation of the Agreement at an early date.”

India, Bangladesh and Nepal have already ratified the MVA, after Foreign Ministers of the BBIN nations signed an agreement to allow ease of motor vehicular traffic on June 15, 2015 and diplomats did a trial run among the countries.

Bhutan’s National Assembly or Lower House had cleared the Bill and forwarded it to the National Council or Upper House in July 2016, with the hope it would be passed by year end.

However, protests from the Opposition, mainly over environmental concerns of vehicular pollution increasing have derailed the process. In the 25-member National Council, the government faced sharp questions on the number of vehicles that would be allowed into the country via the Southern trading point of Phuentsholing and road capacities.

“The concerns in Bhutan, of our lawmakers, our media, our people are well-founded, as our country is very small, our roads narrow and infrastructure limited. So the prospect of millions of cars coming in, however remote that prospect might be is very scary. There is a big asymmetry between Bhutan and the other countries, but we want to cooperate and be part of any regional cooperation,” Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay had told The Hindu in an exclusive interview last month.

Despite excellent relations between the two countries, India has been wary of leaning too heavily on the Bhutanese government to speed up the BBIN ratification as it could offend the sensitivities of the smaller neighbour.

Another chance

Officials say if the Bhutanese government decides to give the agreement another chance, it could ask for a joint sitting of both Houses to clear the MVA, or to bring it back to the National Council after a year, according to the rules of procedure. In the meanwhile, the BIN (Bangladesh-India-Nepal) countries could go ahead with building their logistics.

Along with its potential as a road link that will extend to rail and waterways reducing circuitous shipping routes by 1,000 km, the BBIN grouping is also seen as India’s way of countering Pakistan in the SAARC grouping. The MVA was first proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in 2014, but Pakistan refused to ratify it, as a consequence of which land-locked Afghanistan had to stay out as well.

With India pulling out of the SAARC, any hopes of the South Asian body clearing the agreement ended, which gave the BBIN grouping even more prominence.

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