Multimodal connectivity involving road, river, sea, and air routes is needed to enhance trade in the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) sub-region, speakers told a virtual meeting Tuesday.
They said the sub-region's existing trade and connectivity are very poor compared to potential.
Addressing the event organised jointly by Unnayan Shamannay and India's Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) International, former governor of the Bangladesh Bank Dr Atiur Rahman said despite huge potential, trade among the BBIN countries is much lower than that among the European Union members and also among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) states.
He said enhancing trade connectivity among the BBIN countries would benefit not only the business community but also the people of the sub-region.
It would also have positive impacts on employment, domestic demand mobilisation, and the macroeconomic situation as a whole, added Atiur, also the chairperson of Unnayan Shamannay.
He urged all stakeholders in the BBIN countries to enhance trade and collaboration in the context of recovery from the coronavirus-induced economic shock.
"Multimodal connectivity is our target so that we can integrate the supply chains in the region further," he added.
During his visit to Bangladesh in March this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina emphasised robust regional connectivity to expand trade.
He lauded Hasina's initiatives for multimodal connectivity.
Bangladesh at the time sought greater access to the Indian territory to connect with Nepal and Bhutan and requested Delhi to approve the new routes.
Both leaders stressed the need for signing a trilateral memorandum of understanding involving Bangladesh, India, and Nepal to implement the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement.
Dr Khondoker Golam Moazzem, research director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, told Tuesday's programme Bangladesh had achieved success in bilateral ties but not in regional connectivity.
He said at least one instance of success is needed in this respect and also shed light on the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement.
He said India, Nepal, and Bhutan should contribute to developing trade infrastructure in Bangladesh as they would also benefit from that.
The BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement was signed in 2015 to facilitate unrestricted cross-border movement of cargo, passengers, and personal vehicles among the four countries.
Under the agreement, trucks carrying export-import or transit cargo can move within the territories of other countries without trans-shipping to local trucks at border land ports.
But the agreement's implementation is delayed as the countries are working to clarify some of the provisions that are supposed to be elaborated in protocols.
"Unless Bangladeshi trucks directly carry export goods to their destinations, export volumes will not pick up. We want to send goods to India directly via ships," Ahsan Khan Chowdhury, chief executive officer at Pran Group, told the event.
Neelima Akhter, additional secretary to the Road Transport and Highways Division, pointed out that along with dealing with infrastructural challenges, the discourse on trade connectivity among the BBIN countries should ensure adequate attention to inter-country tax management issues.
Commodore Golam Sadque, chairman at Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority, emphasised the role of private sector innovation to further facilitate trans-boundary trade in the sub-region.
Matlub Ahmed, president at the India-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, welcomed further research and dialogue on trans-boundary trade and commerce.
He said private sector linkages among the BBIN nations need to be facilitated.
Robart Shuvro Guda, Unnayan Shamannay's lead economist, shared the challenges and prospects of multimodal connectivity based on findings from a survey conducted on four land ports, four river ports, three sea ports, and a trade hub in Bangladesh.
Since January last year, CUTS International, with support from the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, has been implementing a project titled "Enabling a Political Economy Discourse for Multi-modal Connectivity in the BBIN Sub-region (M-Connect)". Unnayan Shamannay, Bhutan Media and Communications Institute, and Nepal Economic Forum are the project partners.
The project partners have identified four critical transport corridors in the BBIN sub-region and have conducted primary and secondary research in more than 50 strategic locations.
The four proposed multimodal corridors are Kathmandu to Chattogram or Mongla via Banglabandha; Kathmandu to Visakhapatnam via Kolkata-Haldia; Bhutan or Northeast India to Mongla or Chattogram via Jogighopa, Tamabil; and Kolkata to Agartala via Benapole, Chattogram, Ashuganj, Akhaura.
The research conducted by the project partners provides critical information on the current status of infrastructure and connectivity of the four corridors, the existing gaps, and also ways to mitigate infrastructure and other gaps in the BBIN sub-region with respect to taking the multimodal connectivity discourse forward.