01 April 2016 08:27:38 IST

BIMSTEC trying to reinvent itself, after two decades

Sumith Nakandala, Deputy High Commissioner of Sri Lanka

BIMSTEC or Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, was formed nearly two decades ago, in 1997. In 1998, the regional group proposed entering a free trade agreement (FTA) with India and Thailand, two main partners, pushing for ‘Look East’ and ‘Look West’ programmes, respectively.

Since then, the trade paradigm in the region had undergone substantial change. India has entered FTAs with Thailand as well as the ASEAN.

It has preferential trade agreements with prominent BIMSTEC members like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

But, the BIMSTEC free trade agreement remained a pipe dream.

“Most large groups like ASEAN or EU started discussing trade much later. But we were at it from the word go,” the first Secretary General Sumith Nakandala told BusinessLine .

Business left out So, what is preventing the FTA? Nakandala says that all the country leaders backed the proposal in the last BIMSTEC summit, in Nepal, in 2014.

The former Sri Lankan diplomat took charge of the Dhaka-headquartered body in August 2014. Till then, it had an office-less existence, with envoys of the member nations – Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal — meeting at the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry in Bangkok, once a month.

But, FTA is hardly the only hurdle before BIMSTEC to emerge as a trade block. In 2011, the group promoted BIMSTEC Chamber of Commerce under the National Chamber of Commerce of Sri Lanka to connect with trade and industry.

Till date, the chamber has failed to organise a single meeting with trade and industry in the region.

“I am now pushing Assocham and the National Chamber of Commerce of Sri Lanka to convene the first business meet this year. I am keen that it is organised in Kolkata so that we can connect with business in the North-East India,” he said.

Nakandala is unequivocal that bringing trade and industry a part of the regional grouping initiative is one of his top priorities. “How can you tackle trade issues without the involvement of business?” he asks.

Setting priorities So, was BIMSTEC merely a talking shop so far? Many successful groups like ASEAN had prolonged phases of fruitless discussions, the secretary general points out. The problem is BIMSTEC set too many areas of cooperation including as confusing issues as poverty alleviation. “The last summit in Nepal spoke for pruning down priorities to five. These are cooperation in trade and industry, transport and connectivity, counter-terrorism, energy trade and climate change.

An ADB study identified 65 infrastructure projects to improve connectivity in the region. A study will be launched soon to find scope for electricity grid connectivity projects.

Meanwhile, after nearly six years of preparation, BIMSTEC Convention on Legal Assistance on Criminal Matters is now ready to be signed in the next summit due to be held in Nepal this year.

Bare infrastructure But, as a Dhaka-based body why BIMSTEC is not working on say, the much needed economic cooperation between political adversaries of Bangladesh and Myanmar?

Theoretically, better economic engagement between the two, can open alternate land routes from India to Thiland through Bangladesh and Myanmar — bypassing the North-East.

“Honestly, we didn’t think about it. I spent majority of my one-and-a-half year stay in office with only one director, deputed by Bangladesh,” he says.

With Bhutan coming to aid the number has now gone upto two. India promised to fill the vacancy soon. Delhi he says is now supporting the initiative in a big way.