Leaders of the group of emerging economies, BRICS, are meeting in Goa and India being the host country has rightly planned an outreach programme with the leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral andTechnical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The initiative of inviting regional leaders for outreach programme began with South Africa in the 5th BRICS summit, followed by Brazil by inviting Latin American leaders in the next summit and subsequently Russia invited leaders of SCO and Eurasian Union at Ufa summit. The practice has given a unique opportunity to the leaders of BRICS that constitute Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa and represent four continents to interact with regional leaders of the host country.  

India took over the BRICS presidency from February 16, this year and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rightly planned an outreach meeting with the BIMSTEC leaders from five South Asian countries and two South-East Asian neighbours. Prime Minister Modi had planned integration of South Asian countries by inviting the leaders of SAARC nations at his oath-taking ceremony in 2014. He announced priority to South Asia in his Neighbourhood First policy. However, later the initiative did not fructify much with Pakistan posing as a roadblock.

Signs of cracking in South Asian integration were evident in the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu where three slated agreements, namely on motor vehicle cooperation, railway connectivity and cooperation in electricity trade could not be signed at the venue. However, the agreement on electricity cooperation was signed with the intervention of the host, then Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala at the Retreat of Leaders at Dhulikhel. Subsequently, under sub-regional cooperation mandated by SAARC Charter, an agreement on motor vehicle cooperation was signed amongst Bangladesh,Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN).  

The 19th SAARC Summit slated in Islamabad had to be deferred owing to reported ceasefire violation along India-Pakistan border, terrorist attacks on Indian air base at Pathankot and army base at Uri. New Delhi had to avenge these attacks by conducting surgical strikes on terrorist bases in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan pulled out of the SAARC Summit followed by Sri Lanka. Afghanistan and Bangladesh have also blamed Pakistan time and again for export of terror.  

Integration of South Asia has, thus, become a dream for some skeptics. They believe that SAARC’s march towards a common customs union and an economic union would continue to remain a distant possibility for times to come. The SAARC Free Trade Area (SAFTA) already in operation has not met with much success as the official intra-regional trade remains around $22 billion a year, though trade through unofficial channels continue unabated. If the figure of unofficial trade is added up to the official, the total may be around $60 billion. This shows the potentiality of the region.  

South Asia is the third largest economy in terms of GDP on the basis of purchasing power parity after the US and China. It hosts 21 per cent of the world’s population on 3 per cent of the global land mass. 

Though the trade relations between both have improved in the recent years with Pakistan commerce ministry moving from positive to negative list for imports to facilitate entry of more Indian goods, still much needs to be desired. Over a decade back India had accorded the most favoured nation (MFN) status to Pakistan in matters of trade, but the latter has yet to reciprocate. Islamabad was thinking of giving non-discriminatory market access (NDMA) to Indian goods and at the same time is yet to allow Indian goods to pass through its territory to reach Afghanistan.

The big question is; for how long will the South Asia integration be held hostage to? Is there a way out? Yes. India which is a major country in the region shares borders with all countries with the exception of Afghanistan, which shares its borders with Pakistan. Hence, New Delhi should play a more proactive role in deeper integration of South Asia and work out the plans with all the countries that share the same borders. Regarding, integration with Afghanistan, India should explore the possibility of using Chabahar port in Iran to reach goods and services to Afghanistan by rail and land route. Rightly this possibility is being explored. Maldives, India and Sri Lanka a sub-regional cooperation can be worked out under SAARC Charter similar to that of BBIN.  

However, BIMSTEC that consists of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and two ASEAN countries like Myanmar and Thailand can supplement SAARC’s regional integration and act as an effective bridge between South Asia and South-East Asia.  

BIMSTEC is much younger to SAARC which is around 30 years old. It has some definite positive achievements to its credit. It brings together 1.5 billion people amounting to 21 per cent of the world population and a combined GDP of $2.5 trillion.  

But unfortunately, BIMSTEC so far has had only three Summit-level meetings since its formation in June 1997 in Bangkok. Only recently it had got its secretariat which is rightly situated in Bangladesh. The present leadership in Dhaka under Shiekh Hasina is very proactive in fostering regional integration not only in SAARC but also in BIMSTEC. The last BIMSTEC Summit was in Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar last year and the next is scheduled to be hosted in Nepal.  

A new democratic government in place in Myanmar may prove beneficial for regional cooperation. The architect of democracy in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi is slated to come for the BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summit. Further, as Shiekh Hasina is determined to ensure regional cooperation, the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India gas pipeline can be a reality. New Delhi also needs to do a bit for Dhaka in matters of sharing waters of river Teesta. Bangladesh, Bhutan and other BIMSTEC countries have assured to act on counter-terrorism in the region. India by signing electricity generation and sharing agreements with Nepal and Bhutan other than initiating sub-regional agreement Mekong-Ganga Cooperation that includes Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam has set an outstanding example.  

Unlike SAARC, BIMSTEC has no written charter of its own and is, therefore, more flexible in nature. It has identified 14 priority areas where a member country takes the lead. India is the lead country for transport and communication, tourism, environment and disaster management and counter-terrorism and transnational crime, Bangladesh for trade and investment and has circulated a concept paper on climate change. Bhutan is the lead country for cultural cooperation, Myanmar for energy and agriculture cooperation and Nepal has taken up the issue of cooperation in poverty alleviation. Sri Lanka is the lead country for technology cooperation and Thailand is for cooperation in fishery, public health and people-to-people contact.  

The BIMSTEC Transport Infrastructure and Logistics Study (BTILS) has identified as many as 100 projects that would promote connectivity within the region. These projects are to be funded by the Asian Development Bank. Apart from these, there is the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project that would connect India to ASEAN countries and also the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, both of which are expected to be completed. There is also the ESCAP dream project of Asian Highway.

Among BRICS countries, particularly, Russia, India and China (RIC) can play an effective role in Asian connectivity, India has floated the concept of North-South Corridor to increase trade connectivity between major cities such as Mumbai, Moscow, Tehran, Baku, Bandar Abbas, Astrakhan, Bandar Anzal. China has its own plans for connectivity under One Belt One Road Initiative and Maritime Silk route. Though India and China has differences over boundary dispute and issue on terrorism, Beijing is cooperative on matters of regional and economic development. It has floated the idea of a BRICS free trade agreement. Also among BRICS countries, India, Brazil, South Africa (IBSA) can connect South Asia with Africa and Latin America. Thus BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach programme can be an excellent opportunity for regional integration in South Asia.