Imagine a large warehouse at Biratnagar airport that flies out on cargo planes tons of high value tea, cardamom, nettle fibre products, rice, lentils and expensive aromatic oils and herbs to Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma and Thailand. Imagine a train station at Mechi Nagar bringing tourists on their way to Tibet and Kathmandu on holiday.
The BIMSTEC Summit last week in Kathmandu got a lot of flak. People complained that it was inappopriate to talk about regional connectivity when Kathmandu’s own roads were in ruins. Yet, the sub-regional grouping’s emphasis on connecting South Asia with Southeast Asia has a lot of potential.
The distance between member countries is only in the mind. And even within Nepal it will be Province 1 that can be the gateway to future trade and multi- dimensional cooperation in roads and energy.
What dampens this enthusiasm is the language of BIMSTEC bureaucrats that are not really actionable but just meant to keep politicians talking, the administration and security agencies baffled, the expensive venues occupied, and in the end nothing tangible ever comes out for the people who were stuck in long traffic jams and had to endure humiliation in the name of VIP security. The document is written by people who have no intention of doing anything, and is signed by Heads of Government whose political lifespan is so ephemeral that they just want to maintain the status quo.
This lethal combination keeps our part of the world from growing economically. Let us take the three points in the Kathmandu declaration that talk about establishing the BIMSTEC development fund, the point about continuing to talk about creating a BIMSTEC free trade zone, and ending poverty by 2030.
Could not the language in the resolution read: ‘We will create a BIMSTEC free trade zone across the member countries within one year, increasing the volume of trade by X% per year and; Y% of this will go to set up a development fund contributing to ending poverty.’ As the Beatles song goes, ‘You may think I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one…’
In the true spirit of devolution and federalism, Province 1 could start working with Bhutan, Bangladesh, the states of Sikkim, West Bengal and Bihar of India to create a free trade zone in food, tourism and energy, without waiting for the central governments. The Chief Minister of Province 1, which is closest to the Bay of Bengal, could take the lead on behalf of Nepal and maybe even host the next BIMSTEC meeting there in three years to report back.
In a part of the world where a country’s currency used by more than a billion people can be banned a few minutes before midnight, do not tell us we cannot start trading, allocating a percent of the revenue to a development fund and end poverty.
Such actionable declarations could also make them much shorter. Could someone also tell us how much the Kathmandu meeting cost? How much did the fencing around Tin Kune cost? The people of BIMSTEC countries are not impressed by the number of expensive cars that are needed to take politicians from the airport to their hotels and their grand banquets.
Why do they need helicopters in the sky to escort motorcades, when the guest could have been in the helicopter. Why do our politicians need a car and security to travel from their suites to meeting venues only 50m away?
Nepal desperately needs access to the larger market that BIMSTEC has to offer. Aid will dry up sooner or later, free trade is more tangible and sustainable. It can raise productivity, quality and competitiveness will be the big variables. Industry, businesses and farmers will all have to roll up their sleeves. There could be real opportunity here.
Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc