Just as trade matters in development, connectivity matters in trade. But neither trade nor connectivity will matter if people's lives do not take a turn for the better. For, ultimately, it is the people who matter.
Countries in the South Asian region like Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal share not only a common and rich heritage but also numerous socio-economic endowments and other complementarities that can cater to the common benefit of the people of this region. Yet intra-regional trade has been frustrated over the years, and the trade potential of the region remains grossly underutilised. In fact, the intra-regional trade among countries in the BBIN region accounts for just about five per cent of their total trade.
Although countries in the South Asian region have significant exports and imports with countries outside the BBIN region, they do not find it sufficiently profitable to carry on trade among them. Under the circumstances, it is felt that robust regional integration and connectivity among the BBIN countries can alone bail out the region from the stupor into which it has sunk and set it on the path of flourishing so far as intra-regional trade is concerned.
Flourish in regional trade will also enable these countries to address several socioeconomic inadequacies that threaten the development parameters of these countries. Improved trade will pave the way to shared prosperity and equip the countries of the BBIN region to address diverse issues ranging from livelihood concerns of the people, living standards of the poor and the marginalised, empowerment of women to environmental degradation, depletion of natural resources, and issues of political instability and law and order.
In recent times, the term 'connectivity' has become a buzzword in the discourse on development. But it will be myopic to consider connectivity merely in terms of physical infrastructure. Rather, connectivity is understood as a combination of the physical infrastructure of essential roads and ports, the soft infrastructure of rules, regulations, institutions, and skills that help numerous players participate in trade, and the digital infrastructure that can connect people to the global marketplace lower costs.
Despite the existence of various treaties, agreements, and instruments among the BBIN countries – like SAFTA, SAARC, SAQG, BIMSTEC – the current status of the BBIN countries on the logistic performance index reveals there is a lot of room for improvement in respect of several domains: infrastructure, international shipment, logistics competence, tracking and tracing.
Reforms are also necessary for respect of procedures and harmonisation of data among countries. An integrated and well-coordinated network across countries in this region will act as a catalyst to the development of cross-border value chains.
Trade and transit initiatives will give a much-needed boost to the 'land-linked’ countries like Bhutan and Nepal. All this clearly indicates the need to strengthen connectivity and integration among the countries in the BBIN region.
Under the project titled 'Enabling a political economy discourse for multimodal connectivity in the BBIN sub-region (M-Connect),' CUTS International, together with its project partners in the relevant countries – Unnayan Shamannay in Bangladesh, Nepal Economic Forum (NEF) in Nepal and Bhutan Media and Communications Institute (BMIC) in Bhutan - has carried out field visits to several trade corridors across the BBIN region in an attempt to capture granular details of the problems and prospects of connectivity in this region.
The purpose was to assess and investigate the infrastructure, trade logistics, and consultations with stakeholders to explore ways and means to encourage and promote multimodal connectivity among BBIN countries. Major observations and experiences from these field trips are summarised below.