With geopolitics rapidly changing, Nepal needs to make multi-modal connectivity a reality.
For the past couple of years, there have been groups working silently to push regional multi-modal connectivity. On a trip to eastern Nepal, people get surprised to see the highway connecting India and Nepal looking so nice and good with different integrated checkpoints being developed. The pandemic has pushed back many key deadlines, but there are some serious movements on pushing connectivity within the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) region. Global think tank CUTS International, and some leading think tanks in the region, have been pushing this study and development that is seeing some slow but steady progress. Through the Nepal Economic Forum, we have been engaged with many people on the border despite the pandemic to understand what regional connectivity means to future economic growth and development.
The earlier BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement has moved ahead, but all countries thought the discourse moved to multi-modal transport. Therefore, for Nepal, it is to talk about inland waterways like Kolkata-Kalughat, Raxaul, Kolkata-Sahebgunj, Biratnagar and Kolkata-Varanasi-Raxaul routes that can be integrated into the existing road transportation network. Similarly, for cargo transportation, it will be essential to have the railway networks linking inland container depots and integrated checkpoints. In the case of Bangladesh, rail links are also in place wherein it may not be a distant dream to have a railway that can start in Bangladesh and end inside Nepal. Further, the biggest unleashing of the multi-modal strategy would be to link with the Trans-Himalayan Railway network, wherein China can be connected via Nepal and India to Bangladesh. This is definitely not going to be a short-term objective to be achieved, but in the long run, this seems obvious.
However, for Nepal, we also need to understand that the import duty on vehicles is high, labour costs are higher, and the operation costs of Nepali vehicles are higher than those of India registered vehicles. Also, the biggest complaint from Nepali transport entrepreneurs remains that Indian vehicles continue to take short-haul work in Nepal at lower costs, eating into their business. Therefore, regulation becomes a key factor when we move towards integration.
Compared to a few years ago, where people moved many papers through different offices at the border points, digital platforms are now quickly replacing the brutal old ways of working. However, a lot needs to be done in changing the mind-set as people are still used to having paper backups despite progress in the Nepal National Single Window system. When a smartphone can track cargo and conclude all documentation originating in one part of the world and getting to Nepal and vice versa, it would reduce costs and delivery times. Electronic tracking of vehicles and ensuring that vehicles are not flouting the rules/regulations of the different countries they are travelling to will boost confidence.
Many people on the border seem to be working as agents and managing incredibly informal and illegal trade, trying to create a perception around why BBIN multi-modal platforms may be a problem by citing livelihood problems. Yes, there would be a handful of people engaged in loading and unloading cargo who may lose their jobs. Still, like elsewhere in the world, they can be retrained and reskilled, and continue to work on loose cargo as the platform will only take care of containerised movement. If people are engaged in smuggling or are just acting as agents who know whom to bribe, then surely the state or anyone should be least bothered about it. However, these people have the closest links with politicians through their various local organisations, and therefore have loud voices that need to be repelled through facts and figures.
The key challenge remains in building awareness of multi-modal platforms and thereby providing a better, efficient and cost-effective method of moving cargo across countries. With regionalism and geopolitics going through constant redefinition, a platform like BBIN is apt for Nepal to reach out for its exports and make its imports efficient. The success of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or the East Africa Community (EAC) members is purely based on pushing integration despite the local political challenges one has to go through. The key strategy has to be multi-pronged and proactive so that people on the ground are aware of the various benefits of moving towards a multi-country regional platform.
Nepal needs the BBIN platform more than any of its partner countries purely on two counts. First, it is landlocked, and it has to use Bangladesh or India to access the sea and ocean; and second, more importantly, any linkages to China are most effective through Nepal. Therefore, a proactive move is required to accelerate this discourse and make the BBIN multi-modal movement a reality.