The main underlying current against the BBIN agreement started from the exponential increase in the numbers of regional tourists coming into Bhutan with their own vehicles.
The vehicles, most of which are from India cannot be directly stopped unless there are specific reasons like lack of immigration clearance or the poor fitness of the vehicles.
This increase is borne out in the statistics with the Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA), which found there were 4,544 light vehicles that entered Bhutan from India in 2015. This increased to 6,023 light vehicles in 2016. This is almost a 50 percent increase from 2015.
As of March 2017 there were 1,113 light vehicles that entered Bhutan with the numbers again expected to go higher this year as the peak tourist months are still ahead.
Even the number of two wheelers has gone up with 855 bikes in 2015 and 1006 bikes in 2016. These bikes comprise mainly groups of bikers riding loud bikes.
The above figures bear out the increasing concern of transporters, tour operators and other stakeholders of Bhutan witnessing what they feel is an unsustainable increase in the number of regional tourists and vehicles.
However, on the other side again estimated figures with the RSTA shows that Bhutan still far outnumbers India in the numbers of vehicles that travel to India or use Indian highways to get to other parts of Bhutan.
The RSTA has estimated that in just one month on an average 8,400 Bhutanese vehicles go to India or use Indian highways.
Of this around 4,800 per month use the Indian highways to get to another part of Bhutan like Phuntsholing to Gelephu etc.
The remaining 3,600 a month actually travel into India.
Now, the RSTA has clarified that the numbers are high also because it could be the same vehicles either making multiple entry and exits or on the other hand making multiple trips.
Bhutan has 86,304 vehicles comes to around one vehicle for every nine people.
However, on the other hand the usage could be even higher as many cars going into India do not register at the gate.
Currently, the 10 yearly Agreement on Commerce, Trade and Transit allows for free movement of vehicles on both sides of the border.
So legally as per this bilateral agreement Bhutan cannot stop Indian vehicles coming into Bhutan for no valid reason and vice versa.
Also, given the numbers that currently favour Bhutan it also does not make much sense for Bhutan to ask for number of vehicles reciprocity with India as it would be at a disadvantage for Bhutan.
At the same time the increasing numbers of Indian vehicles coming into Bhutan represent a significant and growing percentage of the car population in Bhutan. This is especially in the context of Bhutan’s limited carrying capacity with limited highways and also very limited parking space in urban areas.
On the other hand even if all Bhutanese vehicles travelled to India it would hardly make a dent on North Bengal, leave alone, the rest of India.
The regional tourists vehicle numbers and its impact on Bhutan’s transport and high value tourism sector, apart from other areas ,are generating an increasing backlash among the Bhutanese public. The first casualty of this has been the stalled BBIN agreement.
What makes it worse for Bhutan on the other hand is that given the numerically higher use of Indian roads and Bhutan’s dependence on India for almost all imports, is currently not possible to control this increasing number of regional tourist vehicles.
This then starts touching on Bhutan’s concept of security and controlling its borders and the also the movement of large numbers of people into Bhutan, which especially in a democratic context holds every possibility for complicating relations with India in the future. This was illustrated by a NC member who pointed to the frayed relations between the once friendly Myanmar and China due to a massive influx of Chinese tourists and vehicles into Myanmar and its subsequent local impact.
This is unless something is done to come to some mutual or tacit agreement between the two countries in the near future.