Bhutan blocks India's road connectivity pact

Bhutan blocks India's road connectivity pact

Deal aims to ease vehicle movement in four nations

Bhutan blocks India's road connectivity pact
Bhutan has blocked an initiative that New Delhi piloted to isolate spoilsport Pakistan and facilitate hassle-free movement of vehicles within India and some of its other South Asian neighbours.

The Government of Bhutan is set to withdraw a Bill it had introduced in the country's Parliament last year to ratify the BBIN (Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal) Agreement for Regulation of Passenger and Cargo Vehicular Traffic. The agreement was inked by the governments of Bhutan, Bangladesh India and Nepal in June 2015. and was aimed at easing movement of vehicles within the four nations.

Ritu Raj Chhetri, a member of lower House of Bhutan's bicameral Parliament, told the DH on Monday that the Government of the tiny Himalayan nation had decided to withdraw the Bill as it had decided to take “more time” to “convince people of the country about the benefits” of the BBIN motor vehicle agreement.

Chhetri is the chairman of the joint committee that was constituted with members of both Houses of Bhutan's Parliament to study the Bill to ratify the quadrilateral agreement. “We had two rounds of discussions, but we couldn't come to a conclusion. There is a deadlock,” he said over phone from Thimphu.

The next session of Bhutanese Parliament would commence on May 3. “The Bill would possibly be withdrawn on May 8, unless something extraordinary happens by then.” Chhetri, a parliamentarian of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Bhutan, said.

Bhutan's decision has come as a strategic setback for India, which has been keen to implement the four-nation agreement to push for sub-regional connectivity even as Pakistan has been persistently playing spoilsport in South Asian nations’ pursuit for greater regional connectivity. The BBIN motor vehicle pact was conceived after a similar agreement within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation was blocked by Pakistan in November 2014. Once ratified by all the four nations, the BBIN agreement would have made it possible for vehicles registered in one country to move into or transit though the other three nations without hassles.

The lower House of Bhutan's Parliament, National Assembly, ratified the BBIN agreement in June last year. The upper House, National Council, however, declined to approve the Bill to ratify the pact, with several members arguing that it would adversely affect the unique culture, tradition, environment, religion and economy of Bhutan. The National Council finally rejected the Bill in November, raising as many as 15 objections. New Delhi of late learnt that Bhutan Government could not muster the support of enough MPs to get the Bill passed even in a joint session of both the Houses.

Chhetri said that it appeared to be difficult to get the BBIN agreement ratified by Bhutanese Parliament, unless it was amended to address concerns of members of the National Assembly and National Council. “There are misconceptions about the agreement among people in our country,” he told the DH.

Bhutan, which was an absolute monarchy, turned into a democracy with the first parliamentary elections held in December 2007 and March 2008. The King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, continues to be the Head of the State, with Prime Minister Tsering Tobgay being the elected Head of the Government.

The Constitution of the new-born democracy requires its Government to get all the agreements it inks with other nations passed by both Houses of its Parliament.

The BBIN connectivity move faltered in Bhutan at a time when India, itself, is opposing the ambitious One-Belt-One-Road initiative of China. New Delhi is particularly opposed to the OBOR's China-Pakistan Economic Corridor component. The CPEC is proposed to pass through the areas India claims as its own and accuses Pakistan of illegally occupying. New Delhi views the proposed CPEC as a move to infringe upon the sovereignty of India.

China has been trying to expand its strategic footprints in almost all the neighbours of India; but it could not get much success in Bhutan, ostensibly because New Delhi traditionally had a special relationship with Thimphu. Bhutan and China do not even have formal diplomatic relations. Beijing, however, over the past few months started reaching out to Bhutanese Government. China's envoy to India, Luo Zhaohui, visited Thimphu in January. He also met Bhutan's ambassador to India, Vetsop Namgyel, in New Delhi in February. China in August 2016 also had the 24th round of negotiations with Bhutan for resolving the boundary dispute.