BIMSTEC must speed up connectivity projects to rival China's Belt and Road Initiative that promotes mind-boggling infrastructure in the region

The Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is 24 years old, but it shows little of the vibrancy seen in other regional groupings around the world. When it was founded in 1997, it had planned to hold summits every two years. However, it has held only four summits so far, with Kathmandu hosting the last one in August 2018. Sri Lanka was due to host the fifth summit last year, but the coronavirus pandemic has delayed it. BIMSTEC is a regional organisation that comprises seven members, namely, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Sri Lanka – five countries from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and two from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

There are fears that BIMSTEC could go the way of SAARC – which remained no more than a talking shop since its inception in 1985 due to India-Pakistan rivalry – if cooperation among the member countries is not tangible, especially on the economic and trade fronts.

BIMSTEC has outlined 14 broad areas of cooperation, including trade, science and technology, energy, poverty alleviation, agriculture, security, anti-terrorism, climate change and health, but it wasn't until recently that they pledged to work together in one area – in the fight against COVID-19. But after two decades of stagnancy, BIMSTEC is showing some vitality.

Even if it has taken 23 years, the regional body was able to finalise its charter in September last year. BIMSTEC is also taking connectivity initiatives to link the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project that provides sea access for India's landlocked northeastern states via the Kaladan River in Myanmar. Within the BIMSTEC framework, Nepal has been trying to integrate with the Bay of Bengal through connectivity and energy cooperation, with Bangladesh even proposing a solar power grid in the BIMSTEC countries.

BIMSTEC countries, with a population of 1.6 billion people, or 23 per cent of the global population, hold immense potential for trade and investment.

Yet, despite a combined GDP of $2.7 trillion, interregional trade barely exceeds 5 per cent, compared to 30 per cent for ASEAN. To give a boost to interregional trade, a free trade agreement (FTA) would be necessary, a vision that has been dragging on for nearly two decades. For this, countries would need to be more outward looking, otherwise it will meet the same fate as that of SAPTA and SAFTA among the SAARC countries. But trade cannot foster in the absence of connectivity. If FTA is to be the vision for BIMSTEC in the future, then connectivity should receive high priority, which means better roads, rails, ports, river navigation and airports. BIMSTEC must speed up connectivity and other projects to rival China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that promotes mind-boggling infrastructure across South and Southeast Asia. For the success of BIMSTEC, the member countries must give up their individual narrow interests for the common good of the organisation and reach a consensus on the economic and security agenda.

Find lasting solution

Landslides render many families homeless every year during the rainy season that continues for four months from June. Once such families lose their houses and farmland, they will never be able to return to normal life that they used to lead before the natural calamity struck them. The government does not have any concrete plan to settle them in safer areas so that they can eke out a living in the new settlements.

Most of the landslide-affected families take refuge on roadsides or in forest areas for many years without support from the government.

A report from Hupsekot Rural Municipality in Nawalparasi states that as many as 128 people from 18 households have been living under the open sky since they were displaced due to landslides last August.

First, they were relocated to a local school temporarily as the school was shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the school has now opened, they have been moved to a place where a bus park is being built. Where will they go after the bus park comes into operation? This is not an isolated case. Therefore, the government needs to come up with a longterm solution to permanently resettle the people displaced by natural disasters every year.

A version of this article appears in the print on January 7, 2022, of The Himalayan Times.