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Seamless connectivity imperative for recovery from pandemic in South Asian’s BBIN sub-region

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As countries of the BBIN sub-region – Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal – adapt to Covid-19 shocks, infrastructure investments, institutional and digital trade facilitation measures that facilitate greater interoperability among railways, inland waterways, coastal shipping, highways and aviation networks are needed for a robust, sustainable and resilient recovery.

This will make the movement of their goods as well as people resilient to future shocks but will also increase the sub-region’s transport and logistics competitiveness, along with expanding connectivity prospects for Bhutan and Nepal.

“For that to happen seamlessly, it is important to take help from initiatives that are available to make that possible such as the UNESCAP’s Framework Agreement on Facilitation of Cross-border Paperless Trade in Asia and the Pacific that came into force on 20 February 2021 just before the third anniversary of the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, which entered into force on 22 February 2017. While Bangladesh ratified the same, other countries are in the process of completing their domestic processes for accession,” underscored Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International.

He was speaking at a Webinar on the Role of Bhutan and Nepal in Multi-modal Connectivity in the BBIN Sub-region conducted by CUTS International, a leading public policy think tank, on Thursday.

Addressing the meet, Bhimlal Suberi, former Chief Planning Officer, Policy and Planning Division in the Ministry of Information and Communication, Bhutan, said that the scope for Bhutan building multi-modal transport connectivity within the country seemed very limited due to the geographical limitations.

“However, prospects for cross-border rail and aviation infrastructure linkages and usage of inland waterways of India and Bangladesh can expand Bhutan’s connectivity prospects and access to markets elsewhere tremendously. Bilateral agreements seem to offer an advantage in negotiating favorable terms to address specific challenges in the particular context of Bhutan,” he argued.

According to Purushottam Ojha, former Commerce Secretary, Government of Nepal, “There is the need to integrate air-connectivity within the sub-region by connecting the capital cities in a hub and spoke manner. There is a possibility to explore the linking of other cities, which are commercially important and near to religious sites.”

“Civil aviation has a lot of potential to cater to social and economic integration by promoting tourism, trade, investment, people to people exchanges. Techno-economic feasibility studies need to be carried out in order to explore and achieve the potential effectively,” he added.

“Asian Highways Network, Trans-Asian Railway Network as well as the Dry Ports Network should be seen as a broad institutional framework which lays a base for the inter-modal economic connectivity in the sub-region,” Azhar Jaimurzina, Chief, Transport Facilitation and Logistics Section, Transport Division, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, said on the occasion.

“Enhancing competence and enabling digitalisation in the logistics sector is very important for facilitating seamless movement of goods,” she added.

“There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm in the sub-region along with political championing at higher levels in recognising the value of alternate transport systems such as waterways in forming a larger multimodal transport and logistics ecosystem,” mentioned Arnab Bandyopadhyay, Lead Transport Specialist, Transport and ICT in the World Bank while discussing the Eastern Waterways Connectivity Transport Grid in the sub-region.

According to Tadateru Hayashi, Unit Head, South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC), Regional Cooperation and Operations Coordination Division, South Asia Department in the Asian Development Bank (ADB), “economic corridor initiatives undertaken by SASEC are about maximising benefits while minimising infrastructure gaps. Techno-economic feasibility studies remain important to develop as well as catalyse economic transformation of corridors.”

Pritam Banerjee, an Independent Trade and Logistics Specialist highlighted the benefits and challenges of multi-modal connectivity, reflecting on prospects for job creation as well as loss due to realignment of supply chains. “…the best available solution is through a welfare maximisation approach as practised by the ADB to minimise the adverse impact of the development process.”

This webinar was organised as part of a project on “multi-modal connectivity in the BBIN sub-region” in collaboration the Asia Regional Trade and Connectivity Programme of the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Drawing expertise from the Transport Division of the Asian Development Bank as a ‘knowledge partner’, CUTS International is implementing it in partnership with Unnayan Shamannay of Bangladesh, Bhutan Media and Communications Institute, and Nepal Economic Forum.

Among other objectives, the project is to identify investment opportunities for fostering multi-modal connectivity linkages in the BBIN sub-region. It will also explore how existing and future connectivity initiatives can be better leveraged to strengthen transport and trade linkages between South and Southeast Asia, which is essential for creating new hubs for global value chains.

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