Bhutan’s Parliament rejects regional motor vehicle pact

The upper house of Bhutan’s parliament voted against the deal on fears of environmental destruction and degraded security
<p>The Bhutanese National Council in session [image courtesy National Council]</p>

The Bhutanese National Council in session [image courtesy National Council]

The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) motor vehicle agreement, was rejected by the National Council (NC), the upper house of the Bhutanese Parliament, on 15 November during the ongoing winter session. The agreement had earlier been approved by the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, though it had received a great deal of criticism by the opposition.

See: Bhutan’s opposition protests regional transport deal

There were high hopes the agreement would mark a new era of closer cooperation and trade in what is one of the least integrated regions of the world.

The NC has 25 members; four were absent, the chairman did not vote, 13 members voted against the agreement, five abstained, and only two voted in favour of the agreement.

Legislative committee versus government view

The NC appointed its legislative committee to study the details of the motor vehicle agreement after the ratification of the agreement by the National Assembly in July this year. Over the last five months, the committee held meetings with various stakeholders, concerned groups of the public and government agencies. The committee also studied the appropriateness of the agreement.

Two reports on the agreement, one submitted by the government and the other by legislative committee were presented for the discussion to the NC. While the government report argued in favour of the agreement, the legislative committee’s report suggested voting against the agreement.

A member of the NC makes a point [image courtesy Bhutanese National Council]
A member of the NC makes a point [image courtesy Bhutanese National Council]
The Bhutanese Foreign Minister, Damchoe Dorji, spoke to the House for two hours highlighting the importance of ratifying the agreement, and the economic benefits the country could reap out of it. Dorji went on to say that the government has also spoken to the various groups of people who have raised concerns about pollution, environmental destruction and security issues. These concerns would be taken care of by the protocol to the agreement that is being worked out, said the minister. The protocol would prescribe details such as how many foreign vehicles would be allowed in Bhutan during a certain period of time.

The NC found this statement to be contradictory.

The legislative committee’s chair, Sonam Wangchuk, said a clause in the agreement stated, “Contracting parties will decide on number of cargo and personnel vehicles and volume of traffic under this agreement through the mutual consultation agreement.” This was the main concern, he said. While it does mention a protocol, but it is one based on mutual consultation.

The agreement also contradicts with the immigration law of Bhutan, he added, which led the NC members to question the Foreign Minister over whether the government had checked whether the motor vehicle agreement was in line with the laws of the country before the government signed it on 15 June 2015.

Roads already crowded

Dagana district’s NC representative, Sonam Dorji, said every Bhutanese would want to drive a car, but many do not, since the government has increased the vehicle tax to 100% to reduce the number of cars on Bhutanese roads. “But if we approve the agreement, we are inviting more vehicles, and this time foreign vehicles,” said Dorji.

“We cannot risk our environment and security in exchange for little economic development,” said Dorji. “With the motor vehicle agreement, we will be allowing foreign vehicles on our already small and cramped roads. Even if we do not ratify this agreement, I have full faith that the relations between Bhutan and India would remain same.”

Thimphu’s NC representative, Nima Gyaltshen said he has participated in all the meetings that the legislative committee held within the Thimphu area, and every group they met were against the ratification of BBIN agreement.

The agreement does not mention control of incoming vehicles from India, he said. “While, we value the friendship between the two countries, but we are too small, and will be swamped by vehicles from the three countries of Bangladesh, India and Nepal,” he said. While welcoming economic opportunities, he added, “we should not forget the likely threats it would pose on our well-preserved environment.”

The NC pointed out that the country does not have space to accommodate heavy vehicles in Phuentsholing town, the main trading border town with India. Nor has the government come up with plans to accommodate the existing number of heavy vehicles within the country. Given these realities, the plan to invite a large number of foreign cargo vehicles seemed ill thought out.

Next steps

Meanwhile, Tashi Dorji, a member of the NC, told thethirdpole.net that the agreement would be sent back to the National Assembly along with NC’s list of objections. If the Assembly agreed with the NC’s points, the agreement would lapse. However, if the Assembly was not satisfied with the objections, the agreement would be forwarded to a joint sitting of the Assembly and the NC.

Since the singing of the agreement in June 2015 internet users in Bhutan and public groups have openly criticised the government from bringing in pollution and importing a threat to the environment.

In the meanwhile the agreement has been ratified by all the other countries, although Bhutan’s concerns have led to some similar anxieties in Bangladesh. The idea of BBIN bloc was initially approved during the 18th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit held in Nepal in 2014.  The motor vehicle agreement is supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has argued that it would lower non-tariff trade barriers and benefit all the countries involved.

However, other experts point out that boosting trade along inland waterways holds far greater potential. Transporting goods by river is more cost effective than road or rail, and for Bhutan certainly, it would avoid the destruction and expense of blasting larger roads through precipitous mountain environments. So it is possible that BBIN will get a trade and transport agreement, it just may be on waterways than on land.