Strange but true, the BIMSTEC Secretariat in Dhaka has to think twice before spending on air tickets for its members. Organising a conference is never easy because the secretariat’s $1 million budget (around Rs 6.9 crore) doesn’t stretch very far.
This is the situation three years since BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), got going largely because India needed to get around SAARC, which had ground to a halt due to Pakistani intransigence. That makes the lack of adequate budget even more embarrassing. Add to that, BIMSTEC has ambitious plans chalked out but little is moving.
BIMSTEC Secretary General M. Shahidul Islam, who is from Bangladesh, is in New Delhi ostensibly to discuss the bloc’s programmes but SNI learns his primary objective is to get more money out of the Ministry of External Affairs, for which purpose he has met Dr S Jaishankar and officials from the ministry.
“Funding will determine the future of BIMSTEC. There has to be a programme budget to run its projects,” said sources. The Kathmandu Declaration upon the conclusion of the fourth BIMSTEC Summit in August last year had called for setting up a BIMSTEC Development Fund. Sources told SNI, “this needs to be expedited”.
The grouping is crawling in other respects. More than a decade after member states signed the framework free trade agreement (FTA), a final document seems somewhere on the distant horizon despite countless rounds of negotiations. Now, there is a view that the negotiations on trading goods can be completed first and a meeting is slated to be held next month in Bhutan.
The refrain among member states is that India has an “informal leadership role to play in advancing the role of this sub-regional grouping”. Sources confirmed that while “India has reiterated its commitment to BIMSTEC, the question of its visibility remains as opposed to groupings like SAARC and ASEAN that are more well known.”
Countries associated with BIMSTEC (India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka), concede that not all members are paying enough attention to the grouping. Sources pointed out that for a grouping to be effective, its members need to meet often to take crucial decisions. While BIMSTEC meetings have grown in number and at various levels, ministerial meetings require members of all seven countries to send their ministers. This is often not possible, given clashing schedules. The result is that BIMSTEC is not in a position to even hold regular meetings at the ministerial level, the sources said.
A case in point is the meeting of BIMSTEC tourism ministers which had to be postponed four times. “Therefore, there is no regular engagement and hence no decision. We need to address this issue,” the sources said.
With the Kathmandu Summit also deciding that the gargantuan list of 14 priority areas must be pruned, there is a need to review and restructure these sectors and rationalise their working, said sources. “With its limited resources, it’s very tough for BIMSTEC to work on all these areas. So the aim is to rationalise these sectors and once this is done, there will be greater focus on each area.”
While India should take the lead role in counter-terrorism, some member states believe this is a very sensitive issue for them given that most don’t face any terrorist threats. A BIMSTEC diplomat warned: “It shouldn’t be taken to a point where it becomes a security or a military alliance. We need to maintain some kind of balance.”
Physical connectivity remains a thrust area for the grouping as it seeks to bring greater integration among member states. Here again smaller countries like Sri Lanka have been saying that India, with its greater resources and infrastructure, needs to keep the interests of smaller countries in mind.