In the backdrop of a growing number of regional tourists and vehicles entering Bhutan, the National Council (NC) in its 16th session in December 2015 passed a resolution which among others recommended a host of measures to regulate regional tourism.
However, the government of the day was unable to get a lid on the ever growing number of regional tourists and vehicles, which was increasingly being seen as the single biggest threat to Bhutan’s unique ‘high value and low impact tourism’ apart from other visible environmental, social and cultural impacts.
By the time the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) motor vehicles agreement reached the NC , a combination of specific legal and administrative issues with the agreement itself, and an undercurrent of growing popular resentment and fears against possible additional regional vehicles and visitors entering Bhutan combined to ensure that the NC voted against the BBIN agreement.
Of the 20 members present in the house 13 voted against it, two from Trongsa and Zhemgang Dzongkhags voted for it and five abstained.
Reacting to the NC vote the Prime Minister Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay said that there has been a ‘big misunderstanding’ with the BBIN agreement and he would not ‘leave any stone unturned’ to convince the MPs and dispel any public fears and misunderstanding.
This would mean that the government, if it can talk to and convince enough MPs, will bring the matter to a joint sitting in the next session where it would need a two-third majority of those attending the joint sitting.
In the joint sitting of all the National Assembly (NA) and NC members the government would require 47 yes votes to get a two thirds majority. This would be an uphill task given that in the NA the government got only 28 yes votes and combined with the two NC yes votes it comes to only 30 votes making it still short of 17 votes.
Unless the government can pull off a miracle the BBIN agreement for all purposes is a dead agreement, with both the Opposition and majority of NC members against it in the backdrop of growing public apprehension against the bill and its implications.
The government on the other hand is under pressure to pass the agreement as failure to do so would come as an embarrassment with the Minister for Information and Communication already signing the agreement along with the Transport ministers of India, Bangladesh and Nepal in 2015 in Thimphu.
The Indian government has also been lobbying with Bhutan’s government to pass the BBIN agreement as BBIN is India’s sub-regional project to circumvent Pakistan’s rejection of the original SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement allowing vehicle transit between SAARC countries.
The former Indian Ambassador, Gautam Bambawale in an unprecedented address in 2015 had called on the Parliament to pass the BBIN.
An Indian newspaper, The Hindu has quoted the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup’s reaction to the NC vote saying, “BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement was signed in Thimphu last year by the representatives of the four governments. It may be recalled that the National Assembly of Bhutan had endorsed the BBIN early this year, and forwarded it to the National Council of Bhutan for consideration. 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.”
Why the NC shot down BBIN
The main reason the NC voted down the BBIN was due to several issues pointed out in the review report of the Legislative Committee (LC) of the NC on BBIN.
Inadequate stakeholder consultation and opposition
The committee met with an array of stakeholders like NA members, MoIC, Foreign Ministry, RSTA, Department of Immigration, Taxi Association, Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Tourism Council of Bhutan, Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators, Department of Revenue and Customs, Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs, Thromde, Dungkhag, Exporters Association, Truckers Association and regional government offices.
The committee found that the government despite its claims of detailed consultations had not carried out comprehensive consultations with the relevant stakeholders before signing BBIN. It was found that except for representatives of the ruling party and a few participants the overwhelming majority of stakeholders consulted did not support the signing of the agreement in its current form.
Even those who supported the BBIN they felt the need to include provisions to restrict foreign taxis and private vehicles from ferrying passengers once they reach their destinations within Bhutan and also limiting entry restrictions for non-Bhutanese trucks within five km of the international border.
Sovereignty, Environment and Security
Though not spelt out the LC report also raised a question on the country’s sovereignty. It said that some Indian firms have already started procuring heavy machinery and trucks perceiving that BBIN is ratified while in another case Indian nationals have started operating private vehicles as taxis in border towns.
It said, “Implicit in such a perception is that Bhutan will rubber-stamp whatever is tabled in terms of regional or international agreements, protocols or conventions. Neither is such a perception healthy nor should nurturing of such perceptions be encouraged.”
The report said that the agreement appears to be driven by the initiative of an external agency like the Asian Development Bank.
The NC pointed out that since the agreement is based on the principle of reciprocity Bhutan will be disadvantaged due to asymmetry in its size and population compared to the other three countries.
It was pointed out that no study was done to determine the impact of BBIN on Bhutan’s culture, tradition, environment, national security, political impact, economy etc. It said that the BBIN opens up the danger of influx of more foreigners with different background and intentions, which could have both a direct and indirect impact on the peace, security and sovereignty of the country.
Contradicting local laws
The LC report pointed out that the provisions of the agreement on multiple entry visas for one year being granted to transport crew contradicted Bhutan’s Immigration Act. Though the agreement says deviation from route will be treated as a violation the report pointed out that stringent penalty for deviation of routes is neither covered under Bhutan’s Custom Act nor the Contract Act.
The NC also pointed out that the Protocol to the agreement which specifies the sector, routes, check posts and authorities have been left bank and so it would undermine the Constitution if the protocol is filled up later.
It was also pointed out that the government had failed to seek the view of the Office of the Attorney General. This contrasted with the government’s earlier claim that it had consulted the OAG.
Capacity and economic effects
The LC found that the government had not considered in detail the carrying capacity of Bhutan’s road and other infrastructure as the volume of traffic and tonnage of vehicles would have huge implications on Bhutan’s limited carrying capacity. It said dry ports, integrated check posts at border towns, roads, bridges and parking spaces are not likely to be ready in a couple of years.
The BBIN permits opening of branch offices and employing foreign workers, and automatic entry of four people per vehicle which the report said could lead to increasing unemployment problems.
It also says the BBIN tax exemption on vehicle accessories, essential spares, fuel, oils contained in supply tanks could be misused by drivers in carrying out small illegal trade.
The LC pointed out that the agreement also opens up competition from foreign cargo and passenger operators to the detriment of local operators.
Current problems not solved by BBIN
The BBIN agreement says it shall not affect the existing bilateral arrangements between contracting parties referring to India and Bhutan. The LC says while this is to formalize the existing informal arrangements, current problems faced by Bhutanese vehicles plying in bordering Indian states and the problems created by Indian vehicles plying within Bhutan cannot be addressed by the agreement.
It says Bhutanese truckers continue to face harassment like paying illegal money, unauthorized levies and coerced donations aggravated by interference of illegal authorities.
Referring mainly to regional tourists, it says an influx of unregulated foreign vehicles and passengers without proper control and monitoring cannot be controlled. This is along with the associated problems of desecration of holy places, negative impact on dollar paying tourists, pollution etc which would continue irrespective of BBIN.
Relations with India
Though not mentioned in the report the NC also did discuss how signing the BBIN in its current form could affect relations with India.
The example of the Chinese vehicles coming in large numbers into Myanmar and Thailand, and the growing public resentment against it was cited to show the same could happen between India and Bhutan. It was also pointed out that heavy movement under a BBIN framework could lead to the entry of Indian militants into Bhutan and again affect relations with India.
The example of the 10,000 MW agreement with India was also cited by NC members with reference to the blank protocol forms in BBIN whereby the 10,000 MW agreement was signed by both sides but there were ‘complications’ in the details that came later for the individual projects.
PM offers a compromise
The Prime Minister said that somehow there was a misplaced impression that the agreement would lead to Bhutan being flooded with vehicles affecting the culture and destroying the environment.
The PM said that the agreement is meaningless by itself as it was in the protocol where the numbers of vehicles and the routes are negotiated between the countries. He said BBIN would not allow for unrestricted movement of vehicles.
Lyonchhen said that while Bhutan would maintain the current arrangement with India there was no protocol agreement with Nepal and Bangladesh.
The PM said that if MP’s are concerned then Bhutan, while passing the agreement, will not even sign the protocol meaning though Bhutan is a part of the agreement it would not take part by not signing the protocol.
He said that even for the protocol anything in it would have to come before the Parliament for approval. The PM said though not desirable this would be better then exiting BBIN.
Lyonchhen stressed that Bhutan should not exit BBIN completely as there would also be future cooperation on energy, trade and IT.
On consultations the PM said that though it was not required the government had consulted with different stakeholders. He said in terms of BBIN not being in line with the Immigration Act, the PM said it is a matter of legal interpretation as there are instances like the operation of Buddha Air in Bhutan where the same laws were applied. The PM also strongly disagreed that Bhutan is a rubber stamp saying that the agreement is good for Bhutan as it allows Bhutan to be part of a larger regional cooperation.