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Empowered Working Committee for sub-regional connectivity need of the hour: Regional Policy Dialogue
Economic Times, May 4, 2018

Participants from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar and Nepal at a Regional Policy Dialogue on “Connectivity Imperatives in the Bay of Bengal Region”, have suggested that an Empowered Working Committee must be created which can function as a regional platform to push ahead the agenda of connectivity in the region.

The two-day Dialogue here organised by noted public policy body CUTS International saw participation from a cross-section of government, private players, multilateral agencies, civil society, think-tanks and media from all the five countries to deliberate on issues to facilitate connectivity in the region by charting out a forward looking agenda to push for it at local, sub-national, national and regional levels.

While day one of the dialogue focussed on strategic and geo-political drivers of connectivity in the Bay of Bengal region and the role to be played by allies like the United States and United Kingdom, the second day examined pertinent development linkages of connectivity, including those relating to livelihood, gender and socio-political realities at the ground level. It was informed by a detailed study undertaken by CUTS International and its country partners on the issue of connectivity and its development linkages.

Pradeep Mehta, Secretary General, CUTS International emphasised the importance of distribution of gains from regional connectivity so as to be inclusive of women and other marginalised and vulnerable communities in the region. While Jaya Singh Verma of UK’s Department for International Development stressed public-private linkages as a crucial element for advancing the connectivity agenda, Robert Gaverick, Minister-Counsellor for Economic, Environmental, Science and technology Affairs, US Embassy, New Delhi emphasised the need for a regional commitment to international laws, treaties and rule-based regime for trade and connectivity.

Sagar Prasai, Country Representative of The Asia Foundation, stressed that it is important to see to it that connectivity leads to proportionate gains to places and spaces away from the metropolitan centres in each of the countries. He underlined the fact that enhancement in trade and connectivity disproportionately benefit metro-urban centres while borer regions and the second rung cities of a country are not really benefitted. He added that for connectivity to work and make sense border region development must be prioritised, with stress on economic development of remotely located and marginalised population.

Anusua Basu Ray Choudhury of Observed Research Foundation flagged that while economic aspects of connectivity is much talked about, the other and linked implications of movement of vehicles and people are seldom highlighted. She mentioned the importance of looking at health hazards of an increasingly connected world where diseases, practices and pathogens also move across borders and not just trucks, which in turn, impact women at the border regions disproportionately.

CUTS presented on implications of connectivity on livelihoods, among other things, and highlighted that since the population across these five countries who are directly or indirectly linked to connectivity are a heterogeneous group, advancement in connectivity will impact them differentially While some will gain with new and improved livelihoods and access to new and bigger markets, it is important to look at what that means for vulnerable groups such as women and other marginalised population, who may have to deal with shifts and loss of livelihoods.

Software of connectivity was the other important issue that was discussed and experts agreed that there is a substantial gap in terms of aligning domestic policies with regional ones and also that information asymmetry, capacity of institutions and people were critical hurdles. It was pointed out that regional institutions, agreements and coordination was required to go past these hurdles. The BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement and its protocols can prove to be a game changer in terms of boosting confidence for regional initiatives and their implementation, it was pointed out.

Toe Aung Myint, Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Commerce, Government of Myanmar, said that Myanmar is keen to align with the current discourse on BBIN connectivity and is looking forward to the completion of various connectivity projects with India, which would help in bridging gaps between South and Southeast Asia.

The dialogue came up with concrete recommendations to enhance physical, institutional and people-to-people connectivity among countries in the region.

The strongest among them were focused on the need for coordination of various initiatives and efforts at national and regional levels through the formation of an Empowered Working Committee. Other recommendations that emerged were to do with the completing ongoing and planned infrastructure development projects, focusing the development discourse on gains at the ground level, importance of engaging media, private sector players and use of new and emerging technology, particularly Information and Communications Technology, which has largely been under-utilised in the region.

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