19:52 GMT17 May 2021
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    Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet sub-regional project to boost road connectivity in India’s eastern flank hit a roadblock in Bhutan, the country’s closest ally, with the Bhutanese opposition parties objecting to the project on environmental grounds.

    New Delhi (Sputnik) — Along with the recent launch of the South Asia Satellite, the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) connectivity project is part of PM Modi’s foreign policy’s “Neighborhood First” approach. Aided with technical assistance from the Asian Development Bank, the BBIN envisages a seamless connection of roads to promote trade and commerce between member countries. Over five years, 30 road projects were to be implemented at a cost of $8 billion – to fill in and upgrade connectivity gaps.

    India has been pushing for such a project within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) grouping where Pakistan too is a member and blocked a regional motor vehicles agreement during the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in November 2014.

    At the Kathmandu summit, Modi had said that regional integration in South Asia would go ahead “through SAARC or outside it, among all of us or some of us”. But the BBIN project is already delayed by over eight months and may take more time to come to fruition.

    Bhutan signed the pact in June 2015 but has not been able to get a nod from its upper house of parliament where the opposition members hold majority and voted against it last November. The Bhutanese fear that the implementation of the deal would lead to an influx of vehicles from other countries impacting its own transporters and pollute the environment.

    Experts said Bhutan will eventually join the project as India and other members can persuade it.

    "If you analyze their parliamentary debates, Bhutan is genuinely debating the environmental impact the project will have on their country and they take it very seriously even before major countries realized the dangers of climate change. There are economic issues also with local truckers objecting to the entry of foreign trucks but that too is tied to the larger debate on environment and pollution. India can use its influence and the King can intervene in the project's favor. But the project is still in initial stages. Once it is fully operational, Bhutan will join it for connectivity and trade benefits," Dr. Smruti Pattanaik, Research Fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, told Sputnik.

    The mood in New Delhi is still positive, according to government officials.

    “Bhutan was finding it a little difficult to ratify the agreement. We requested Bhutan to allow us (Bangladesh, India and Nepal) to proceed with implementation, while Bhutan is to complete the process. They have responded to our request,” The Hindu Businessline quoted Sripriya Ranganathan, Joint Secretary (Bangladesh and Myanmar) in the Ministry of External Affairs, during a talk at the Delhi Policy Group last week.


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