Regional transport deal raises pollution fears in Bangladesh

Concerns grow in Bangladesh over the environmental impact of the regional transport deal among Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal.

Experts and activists in Bangladesh are warning that environmental issues were not properly addressed in the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement, commonly known as BBIN MVA signed on 15 June 2015 in Thimphu, Bhutan. Now apprehensions of increased environmental degradation, air and sound pollution, traffic congestion, deforestation, discharge of waste, loss of agriculture land and other problems are coming to the fore.

Environmental activists, economists and trade leaders of Bangladesh said that the governments need to pay attention to the environmental impact of the huge numbers of transport vehicles which will be suddenly introduced to its roads. Maybe nothing demonstrates how these issues have been neglected more than the fact that no estimates of how much traffic will increase have been made. Therefore no straightforward solution presents itself.

Given the lack of figures, experts are not calling for an outright ban. Instead, they suggested that the Bangladesh government should impose the right price to offset environmental degradation due to the implementation of the agreement, which would be in line with the additional pollution. This could be done as a congestion or pollution surcharge. The funds collected from this could then be used to protect the environment, they told thethirdpole.net.

These demands have gained more prominence since truckers, environmentalists and politicians in Bhutan have opposed the ratification of the agreement in the Parliament afraid of pollution and environmental destruction.

Opportunity for seamless connectivity

Under the agreement, the signatories would allow vehicles – whether personal vehicles or transport vehicles – to ply along the proposed six routes across the four countries. The deal is supposed to pave the way for a free movement of people and goods within these four countries, reducing the cost of doing business and promoting economic integration of the region.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is considered the least integrated region in the world in terms of trade and connectivity. Intra-regional trade volume stood at USD 49.6 billion in 2015 which was only 5 per cent of the region’s global trade. Even this was a great improvement over previous years. In 2005, the volume of trade was only USD 16.64 billion.

Transforming these transport routes into economic corridors could potentially increase regional trade within South Asia by almost 60 per cent and with the rest of the world by over 30 per cent, the transport ministries of the four countries have claimed. The agreement was also supposed to facilitate the much-talked “multi-modal connectivity”. This would include linking railways and waterways as well boosting cooperation in other areas like trans-boundary water sharing, establishing sub-regional energy grids and export of hydro-electricity.

The president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Abdul Matlub Ahmad attended the BBIN Business Forum and Expo, held in West Bengal in India, earlier this month. Afterwards Matlub told thethirdpole.net that the BBIN motor vehicle agreement would boost economic development, further explore trade and investment opportunity of the sub-region and increase people to people contact.

The leading trade organisations from the four countries were present at the Expo, and decided to set up an economic zone involving areas from the four countries. In a way this would hark back to the pre-colonial period when the Panchagarh region – now divided between the countries – functioned as an economic corridor. These would include Bangladesh’s Panchagarh in Bangladesh, Siliguri in India, Biratnagar in Nepal and Phuntsholing in Bhutan.

As an example of the scope for cooperation, readymade garments will be manufactured in the economic zone using Indian fabrics, the cutting and making process will happen in Bangladesh, and exported from Nepal to countries such as the United States, with whom Bangladesh does not have duty-free market access, he said.

The agreement was supposed to come into force from January 2016 but Bhutan delayed ratifying the agreement amid domestic opposition. Bhutan finally ratified the deal on 21 June, and officials from the Bangladesh government are pushing for the four countries to expedite the signing of protocols and procedures required to make the deal functional.

Environmental concerns

Not everybody is that enthusiastic. According to the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a leading independent think-tank in Bangladesh, the issue of environmental protection has not been spelt out clearly in the agreement. There is merely a condition that says a vehicle will have to carry a valid “pollution under control” certificate issued by a contracting party.

Mustafizur Rahman, the executive director of CPD and head of the study team, told thethirdpole.net that the increase of vehicles on the road will naturally raise pollution levels, and this has to be addressed. Additionally agricultural and forest lands will be converted into roads to facilitate the increased numbers of vehicles from the contracting countries, causing deforestation.

These concerns were behind the opposition to the agreement in Bhutan, he said. And the Bhutanese parliament responded by ratifying the agreement in a conservative way, by not allowing free flow of foreign vehicles into the country, and with an option of regulating the cross border movement of vehicles. The Bhutanese way of addressing the possible problems has given those in Bangladesh a way of also approaching the issue.

Officials within the Bangladesh Environment and Forest Ministry and Department of Environment told thethirdpole.net  that the government had not consulted them on the agreement. Kamal Uddin Ahmed, the Environment Secretary, said the government is supposed to take solicit opinions from the ministry on issues related to the environment. He could not confirm whether the ministry had ever given such an opinion on the BBIN agreement.

Quazi Sarwar Imtiaz Hashmi, the additional director general at the Department of Environment (DoE), was more categorical. He said that the government did not get any environmental clearance, nor did it ask for an opinion from his department. He suggested that if the participating vehicles met EU approved standards for exhaust emissions and other pollutants, then that would go a long way in dealing with extra air pollution.

Professor emeritus Ainun Nishat of BRAC University, who is also Bangladesh’s former country representative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) told thethirdpole.net that along with direct environmental pollution there are some other concerns including possible smuggling and human trafficking which will affect overall social environment of the country.

He suggested that the government should impose appropriate charges on vehicles for environmental pollution. The movement of vehicles, particularly cargo vehicles with higher load capacities, should be regulated. The number of vehicles, time and frequency of movement should be controlled as Bangladesh’s roads are not designed for heavy loaded cargo vehicles, he said.

According to a survey of the country’s Roads and Highways Department, the government will have to spend eight times more than its yearly allocation to keep its road network fit for smooth traffic movement in the coming five years as nearly 45 per cent of its surveyed roads are in poor condition.

With these significant challenges before them, the Bangladeshis are taking another hard look at the new motor vehicle agreement. Inspired by their Bhutanese counterparts, they may just tweak the agreement to make it safer for their environment too.

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.

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