By Ambalika Guha
India’s optimism over SAARC continues to wane in the face of its persistent animosity with Pakistan. With the recent spat relating to Kashmir, Narendra Modi’s government remains unflinching in its commitment towards sub-regionalism. Of late, the government has deployed the conscious strategy of publicizing the BBIN Initiative (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) and placing it at the core of India’s development agenda and foreign policy vision.
There is no denying that India’s positive bilateral relations with the BBIN countries have provided it with a rare opportunity to engage dynamically within a more integrated and cohesive sub-regional framework.
BBIN sub-regional grouping hinges on the vision to promote seamless connectivity, greater economic integration and increased transit facilities amongst the member countries. The signing, dubbed as the historic Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) on June 15, 2015, is construed as the most illuminating instance of BBIN’s success in giving shape to its objectives. Yet, Bhutan continued to be apprehensive till it ratified it in June 2016.
Like Bhutan, it is time for India to shed its complacency and take a more realistic stock of the situation. Before India can reap any real economic benefits from the BBIN sub-regional grouping, it should take cognizance of the social challenges prevailing euphoria over BBIN, so far gone unnoticed.
As India seeks to consolidate existing linkages and build up new ones as encapsulated in the MVA, it faces multifarious challenges. These include that of unregulated trafficking, infiltration of terrorists into Indian territories and transmission of lethal diseases. India’s open borders with Nepal and Bangladesh have made way for border towns to be increasingly deployed as sites for illegal and subversive activities. Human trafficking is emerging as a major social concern amongst the BBIN countries. In the recent years, disconcerting reports of women and girls being trafficked from Thimphu (Bhutan) to India and Nepal are on the rise. The Bhutanese border towns of Phuentsholing, Gelephug and Samdrup Jongkhar are emerging centers of flesh trade. The post-earthquake Nepal, on the other hand, has witnessed an alarming number of poor Nepali women being trafficked out of the country by Indian gangs operating in bordering Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Similarly, India’s porous border with Bangladesh allows unobstructed trafficking of persons, drugs, and cattle. Lack of reliable data on trafficking and absence of concerted effort by the national governments have aided the process.
The smuggling of narcotics and gold along India-Nepal and India-Bhutan borders couple with alarming reports of arms and ammunitions being seized on the border. These raise the specter of potent security threats to the country. At the same time, there exist potential danger inherent in ‘seamless’ movement of people, goods, and vehicles. The necessity of adequate regulatory framework and effective surveillance to curb subversive activities remain absent.
The recent terrorist attack in Bangladesh is a further reminder to the bordering North-Eastern states of India and West Bengal. They need to guard themselves against possible ‘jihadi’ activities by radical Islamists who sneak into the Indian territory using unfenced borders and set up training centers to indoctrinate young impressionable mind.
Public Health Hazards
BBIN has enabled increased population mobility and opening up of multiple channels of trade and communication. This, in turn, has also heightened possibilities of cross-border transmission of infectious diseases such as HIV-AIDS, TB, malaria, and Kala-azar.
Despite World Health Organisation’s cognizance of the potential threat posed by communicable diseases, its plea for effective cross-border disease control management in South Asian region remains unheard. Thorough research on the subject is conspicuous by its absence, let alone effective policy intervention. However, sporadic research undertakings by NGOs and governments of individual countries have, from time to time, contributed to a clearer understanding of the enormity of the threat.
For instance, the findings of Asia Pacific Malaria Elimination Network (APMEN) on Bhutan once revealed that malaria was endemic in those districts of Bhutan that bordered with Assam. An endemic transmission zone of seven districts bordering India were identified, namely, Samtse, Chukha, Dagana, Sarpang, Zhemgang, Pemagatshel and Samdrup Jongkar. 10-20% of the patients treated for malaria in malaria endemic districts of Bhutan were Indian migrant workers. Many of those were engaged in various development projects such as the construction of hydroelectric dams, roads, and airport.
The Ministry of Health in Bhutan (2015) revealed a higher incidence of the disease in the bordering towns of Phuentsholing and Thimphu. These constitute the hub of commercial activities undertaken with India and hence, register high population mobility and the propensity to engage in a high-risk sexual behavior. In a similar manner, a mobile population is a major carrier of diseases from India to Nepal and Bangladesh. Equally alarming is the link between sex trafficking and HIV-AIDS.
Safeguarding Action Plans
With India’s recent prioritization of ‘Act East’ policy, the Centre has to bear the primary responsibility of displaying sufficient political will and strong resolve to initiate effective border management programs. This will include taking concrete steps towards implementing cross-border collaboration and disease management programs. The only way to limit the problem would be by enforcing stiff criminal penalties and effective legal interventions. The lofty principle of ‘seamless connectivity’ will remain flawed and bring with it major security challenges in the years to come.
Ambalika Guha is researcher at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata Chapter.
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