Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests.
Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests, Indian diaspora.
Important International institutions, agencies and fora- their structure, mandate.
20 years of BIMSTEC: Hopes and Apprehensions
On June 06 this year, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) completed 20 years of its establishment.
Comprising of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan, BIMSTEC is home to 1.5 billion people, accounting for approximately 21 per cent of the world population, and a combined GDP of US$ 2.5 trillion. The growth rate sustained by the BIMSTEC countries is around six per cent per annum.
Initially known as the Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIST-EC), it was formed after representatives from the aforesaid four countries met at Bangkok in June 1997. With Myanmar joining the grouping as a full member in December the same year, the ‘BIST-EC’ was renamed as ‘BIMST-EC’. In February 2004, when Nepal and Bhutan too joined, the grouping was renamed as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation or BIMSTEC.
So far, BIMSTEC has held three summit meetings. The first one was held in Thailand in 2004, seven years after the establishment of the grouping; the second one was held four years later in India in 2008, and the third one six years later in Myanmar in 2014. The fourth summit meeting is expected to take place later this year in Nepal, the current Chair of BIMSTEC.
According to the June 1997 ‘Declaration on the Establishment of the Bangladesh-India-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIST-EC)’, also known as the Bangkok Declaration, the founding objectives of the sub-regional initiative were:
Creating an enabling environment for rapid economic development of the sub-region.
Encouraging the spirit of equality and partnership, promoting active collaboration and mutual assistance in the areas of common interests of the member countries.
Accelerating support for each other in the fields of education, science and technology, etc.
Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his message on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of BIMSTEC, described the sub-regional grouping as “a natural platform” to fulfill India’s “key foreign policy priorities of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’”.
Earlier in October 2016, India had hosted the BIMSTEC members at Goa during the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Outreach Summit. It was viewed as a pragmatic step on India’s part, demonstrating its potential to play the role of a regional leader, an aspiration which was instrumental in transforming its ‘Look East’ into ‘Act East’ policy. The BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit is believed to have given BIMSTEC its due importance by inviting its members to participate in a larger platform comprising five major emerging economies of the world.
Within few months of the Goa Summit, India hosted the first meeting of the BIMSTEC National Security Chiefs in New Delhi in March 2017.
Potential of BIMSTEC:
BIMSTEC provided opportunities to all its member countries
For India, the establishment of BIMSTEC, was an opportunity, besides the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to engage with Southeast Asia, at least partially. BIMSTEC provided scope for direct connectivity with Southeast Asia via Northeast India and Myanmar. Counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency cooperation with Myanmar and other members, potential access to alternative energy resources in Myanmar as well as economic opportunities available in the ASEAN region had evoked sufficient interest.
Besides India, other members too considered it as an important mechanism to achieve their national goals and regional aspirations. Myanmar, for example, became a member at a time when the junta in the country was facing serious international criticism. Membership in regional and sub-regional groupings like ASEAN and BIMSTEC provided its military rulers an opportunity to gain some sort of recognition among the regional stakeholders.
Thailand, on the other hand, was looking for an opportunity to enhance its trade and connectivity with the South Asian countries under the ambit of its ‘Look West’ policy. So, in a way, India’s ‘Look East’ and Thailand’s ‘Look West’ policy complemented each other within the ambit of BIMSTEC. The ongoing India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the India-Myanmar Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project are expected to further augment connectivity and economic cooperation in the sub-region and beyond.
Countries like Sri Lanka considered BIMSTEC as an opportunity to engage with the economically booming Southeast Asian countries, especially after several failed attempts to join ASEAN in the decade prior to the establishment of BIMSTEC.
For the land-blocked countries like Nepal and Bhutan, BIMSTEC holds the prospect of enhancing their connectivity with the rest of the region.
BIMSTEC does not seem to have made much progress. Despite its huge potential in terms of enhancing regional cooperation between parts of South and Southeast Asia, BIMSTEC has long suffered from lack of resources and proper coordination among its member states.
India, the largest member of the grouping, has often been criticised for not providing a strong leadership to BIMSTEC. Both Thailand and Myanmar are criticised for having ignored BIMSTEC in favour of ASEAN.
Absence of a permanent secretariat for a long time and lack of commitment to invest in several priority areas identified by the member states were seen as some of the key institutional factors holding the BIMSTEC back. It took 17 long years for BIMSTEC to finally establish its permanent secretariat in Dhaka in 2014.
The ‘noodle bowl effect’ of regionalism too was at work as formation of another sub-regional initiative, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Forum, with the proactive membership of China, created more doubts about the exclusive potential of BIMSTEC.
India has been clearly signaling its renewed interest in BIMSTEC. India is already the lead country for four priority sectors, namely, transportation and communication, environment and disaster management, tourism, and counter-terrorism and trans-national crime.
In an effort to strengthen sub-regional cooperation on combating terrorism and trans-national crime, the BIMSTEC member states are trying to implement a convention on anti-terrorism. Except for Nepal and Bhutan, all member states of BIMSTEC have ratified it.
BIMSTEC is now trying to sign a Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters.
Progress made in other sectors are- India hosting a working group meeting to finalise the BIMSTEC Motor Vehicles Agreement, finalisation of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Grid Interconnection to facilitate electricity trade in the sub-region, and a meeting of BIMSTEC Trade Negotiating Committee to fast-track the process of trade facilitation in the region.
The declaration issued at the Goa Summit had also stated that BIMSTEC needs to have a Coastal Shipping Agreement to allow the member states to trade freely within the sub-region.
It is noteworthy that between 2002 and 2014, the intra-BIMSTEC trade registered a very marginal growth, from 3.6 to 4.3 per cent only.
A former Thai ambassador described it as a ‘complimentary organisation’ which can support the people in the region.
For BIMSTEC to become an enabler of regional cooperation, it will have to evolve as an organisation that works through a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach. The people-centric approach seems to be the best as BIMSTEC seriously lags behind ASEAN and other regional organisations in terms of people-to-people contacts.
Also, the organisation needs to focus on fewer priority areas for purpose of better implementation. It needs to undertake projects that are economically feasible and result-driven. This would add to the credibility of BIMSTEC.
Finally, since the BIMSTEC region is notable for its diversity, the member states need to build on the regional synergies and work towards utilising the available resources in the most optimal manner. This would help build a stronger and a more dynamic BIMSTEC.
In today’s context, the possibility of enhancing physical, digital and people-to-people connectivity in the sub-region is huge. Similarly, the potential to tap the vast energy resources and scope for intra-regional trade and investment too is enormous. BIMSTEC member nations must work on in a cooperative manner to take advantage of huge potential BIMSTEC offers.
Connecting the dots:
The year 2017 marked twenty years of BIMSTEC. Critically analyze the progress the grouping has made and elaborate on scope as well as challenges faced by the grouping.
BIMSTEC as a sub-regional grouping provides tremendous scope for cooperation and growth for its member nations. However the grouping is yet to realise its true potential. Discuss.
TOPIC: General Studies 3
Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment
Rivers as a living entity: Implications and Challenges
With a view to conserve the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, the Uttarakhand High Court in its March 20, 2017 judgement, declared the two rivers as living entities having status of legal persons and having all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities.
The judgement also identified three officials as the human face to protect, preserve and conserve these rivers, who are bound to promote their health and well being.
The court also observed that the rivers are the source of physical and spiritual sustenance of people from time immemorial, that these ‘rivers are breathing, living and sustaining the communities from mountains to sea’ and that such declaration as legal persons is needed to protect the faith in of society.
Following this precedent, the Madhya Pradesh government also took a decision in May this year to declare river ‘Narmada’ as a living person with all attendant rights.
Implications of the judgement:
Post the High Court judgement, these two rivers can claim ‘right to life’ following the Fundamental Rights provisions of the Indian Constitution, and can theoretically enforce the same.
An obvious implication is that the two rivers should not be irretrievably polluted. It is illegal now for anyone to “harm” these living entities.
Now that they are considered ‘living entities’, Ganga, Yamuna, and their tributaries hold the same legal rights as a person. In the eyes of law, they will be seen as “a legal or juristic person”.
The ruling means that Ganga and Yamuna are essentially like minors — incapable of holding or using the property — and need to be placed under the care of a manager and/or a guardian. These caretakers will be responsible for ensuring the rivers are not misused, abused or misappropriated for personal use.
Providing a sustainable ecosystem is the need of the hour. The polluters who are liable to be sanctioned in court proceedings are however many: industrial units, municipal authorities, local bodies, millions of villages, and so on. This is definitely a vast challenge. There are millions of players who are involved. The industries and utilities of local bodies are the point sources of pollution and millions of farmers alongside the rivers are the non- point sources of pollution.
The challenge before the policy makers is how to bring all the players on the same page for not polluting the rivers. For instance, the industrial units should discharge industrial effluents into rivers after proper treatment or even take steps for ‘Zero liquid discharge’ . The regulatory machinery for ensuring the same has weak capacity to deliver today. ‘Online data monitoring’ at sewage discharge points of an industrial unit or utility has been thought of, but its proper implementation is a big challenge.
Similarly, in the case of local bodies, it is often difficult to prevent the municipal sewage from polluting the river water. In a country where open defecators pose the biggest challenge, absence of proper sewer network and subsequent non-treatment of municipal sewage, especially in urban areas, aggravate the problem in the context of polluting the river Ganga and Yamuna.
In this context, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan programme is a right step forward, but its lesser emphasis on faecal sludge management is a matter of concern.
Several questions like- How can a river or its constituents, with no voice of their own, ensure such rights, or demand justice should they be violated? Who would be the beneficiary of compensatory action?- remains to be answered.
As far as cleaning of rivers is concerned, there exists political will at least at the central level, but its absence has been noticed in all States through which the two rivers flow.
Overall, the perception is that only governments are mandated or supposed to ensure clean rivers. The public at large, civil societies, and industrial stakeholders, are important stakeholders for achieving such objectives. And thus the civil society must come together to protect the rivers.
Attention should also be given to reviewing the existing policy and legislative initiatives: for example, adoption and implementation of laws such as the Uttarakhand Flood Zoning Act 2012 by the participating States would also help in restoring the health of the rivers by creating ‘room’ for them.
Nevertheless, the Uttarakhand court’s judgement is an important step in the right direction for ensuring clean rivers. Its time policy makers, civil society and more importantly central and state administration fall in line.
Connecting the dots:
Discuss the implications of Uttarakhand High Court judgment declaring River Ganga as a living entity. Also elaborate on challenges in ensuring clean rivers.
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