The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a regional multilateral organization founded in 1997, offers a well positioned platform to help address a multitude of challenges.
The Bay of Bengal is the largest bay globally with critical importance not only for the countries around, but also from a geostrategic perspective. The implications include demographic, political, economic, security-related, and more. Almost one-fourth of humanity resides in the seven countries bordering the bay, with half a billion living directly within the coastal rim. The highly populated bay has unimaginable economic potential for trade and commerce. It is rich in untapped natural resources, with some of the world’s largest reserves of gas and other seabed minerals, as well as oil. The nutrient inputs from the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers ensure that the water in the Bay contains massive fishing stocks.
Geostrategic importance of the Bay of Bengal also stems from the fact that it links the Indian and the Pacific Ocean with one-fourth of the global trade passing through it annually. As a strategic funnel to the Malacca Straits, it is critical to ensuring access to trade routes and thus presents itself as a pivotal venue for the projection of naval capabilities. Despite the Bay having the potential of becoming a key maritime hub, it is marked by being the world’s least integrated regions, with abysmal levels of trade, connectivity, mobility and cooperation among the nations within. Mid-20th century had displayed far better connectivity and cooperation among the surrounding nations than today and given the rising economic potential and geostrategic centrality, the lack of imagination among the leadership is a serious concern.
The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), a regional multilateral organization founded in 1997, offers a well-positioned platform to help address these challenges. The member countries (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand) stand a better chance of success, if they can bring far more creative ideas to cooperate and demonstrate strategic trust in dealing with each other. The BIMSTEC has to deal with security concerns and also unimaginable economic opportunities at the same time and with a past legacy of divergent alliance systems. The former British colonies that became independent nations in the mid-20th century, used political borders to erect barriers and pursued divergent political and socio-economic models. This ensured complete erosion of the region’s sense of community and the extra-regional powers found it easy to meddle in domestic political matters.
The fifth BIMSTEC summit held on 30 Mar 2022, at the Sri Lankan capital Colombo had a theme of “Towards a Resilient Region, Prosperous Economies, Healthy People”. The post-Covid-19 global order is going through a massive economic downturn and the ongoing Ukraine crisis also points to a major challenge to globalization and international relations. The regional groupings have to ensure that they can take their region-specific issues to a level of understanding and actionable framework. Pooling of resources and synergizing of efforts is inescapable.
The four nations on top, namely Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Bangladesh are connected with the Ganga and the Brahmaputra basin, and these are massive rivers and their equally large basins. The challenges & opportunities are equally unique and thus require a nuanced approach. The other group with nations like India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar share the maritime boundary. Even the nations on top need access to the seas, for trade and connectivity to the global economic engines. In terms of geography, India has to play a major role on all fronts in the group. The demography further presents massive diversity and also historical, cultural and civilizational connect among the multiple ethnic communities in the region. Traditional knowledge has significant value in terms of harnessing the diversity of the region for sustainable economic growth.
Geopolitically and geo-strategically, India has committed itself to playing a leadership role in the region and declared the Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) vision in 2015. To strengthen the SAGAR vision, the Government of India has announced mega projects like the Sagarmala, Bharatmala, Inland Water Transport (IWT) and more. However, capacity and capability building is a major concern across sectors and for the entire region. Capacity and capability building support could be the overarching tool for regional consolidation and diplomacy for India. A comprehensive policy & technology intervention along with acoustic capacity and capability building will go a long way to minimize the interference of the extra-regional powers.
The tropical waters are marked by significant siltation in the rivers and particularly the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. The deep understanding of the site-specific sediment transport is particularly important and sediment management has to be done in a nuanced manner. The ongoing over-emphasis on dredging is not only expensive and many times makes the entire project unviable economically but is not able to ensure safe navigable waters in the main channel. The absence of proper hydrographic survey data further complicates the sediment management.
WATER RESOURCE MANAGEMENT
The heavy siltation in our freshwater systems is a significant challenge for effective water resource management as well. Flood management, drought management, erosion and many more, are components of comprehensive water resource management apart from the availability of fresh water for domestic and industrial purposes.
WATER QUALITY MANAGEMENT
Water quality management is increasingly getting more and more relevant given the unprecedented urbanization and industrialization. The real-time monitoring of the water quality and then ensuring calibrated usage of the appropriate quality for the right application is the most critical requirement for water quality management. There is a dichotomy of sorts when on one end we are aware that the freshwater is almost 20% short, but still, high-quality water fit for human consumption is being used for sanitation, industrial purposes, and also agriculture.
UNDERWATER RADIATED NOISE MANAGEMENT
The massive push for connectivity between the river system and the marine ecosystem will also be accompanied by a substantial amount of Underwater Radiated Noise (URN). The river systems of Ganges and Brahmaputra, along with the Karnaphuli River and Sunderbans Delta are known habitats of freshwater Dolphins. These Dolphins are a very critical component of the eco-chain. However, these Dolphins are known to be blind and they perceive the environment around them through sound. Thus rise in the URN is a major cause of concern resulting in severe Acoustic Habitat Degradation. The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), must consider the Acoustic Habitat Degradation as a key focus to ensure sustainability.
Even in the Oceans as well, the increasing shipping traffic is resulting in the frequent stranding of big whales in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). URN management is being pushed by International Maritime Organization (IMO), as their main agenda point. The west is seeing this, as a business opportunity and making sure the regulations are implemented urgently. The tropical littoral waters have their own unique acoustic propagation characteristics and we should use them to our benefit, rather than succumb to the pressures from the west. URN management is also critical for Acoustic Stealth management of the military platforms, thus a joint indigenous acoustic capacity and capability building effort at the strategic level will serve everybody. Involving western partners in such critical requirements could be detrimental to our own strategic interests.
The political volatility of the region makes sure high-security concerns and the non-state actors get the upper hand in governance. The disruptive means available with the non-state actors make it extremely difficult for the security agencies to manage the security concerns using conventional means. High technology has to be used for surveillance and intervention. The unique acoustic propagation characteristics of the tropical littoral waters further complicate the situation as the imported hardware & know-how from the west does not work in our waters. Thus effective UDA is a critical requirement for strategic maritime security management. Even the freshwater systems with transboundary connections and internal security dimensions present similar vulnerabilities. India can present itself as a real net security provider with a sound UDA framework at a regional level.
ACOUSTIC CAPACITY AND CAPABILITY BUILDING
Acoustic capacity & capability building will be the key to meeting all the sectoral requirements. The well-informed policy and technology interventions will be seamlessly realized with local site-specific R&D and knowledge-based and skilling initiatives. Even the communities engaged in traditional livelihood means can greatly benefit from the Digital Ocean initiative. The high-tech tools provided by the UDA framework for effective management of the uncertainties in their local fishing and other livelihood activities will allow enhanced flow of resources from the stakeholders and financial institutions. Even the start-ups can get involved and provide innovative tools for the management of their local ecosystems.
The BIMSTEC secretariat may like to adopt a multi-pronged approach. The first is an outreach, engage, and sustain initiative. The ‘outreach’ will translate to sensitizing the policymakers, stakeholders, and practitioners across the region on the UDA framework and its strategic relevance. The ‘engage’ will be at two levels, one is the students and young professionals who can be supported with UDA fellowships and the second is to get the policymakers and stakeholders to come on board and support this critical initiative. The ‘sustain’ will mean initiating projects for policy and technology interventions along with acoustic capacity and capability building. The BIMSTEC should pitch for setting up of a Centre of Excellence (CoE), on the UDA framework. The proposed CoE, has a very unique structure with five sub-centres, namely a multi-disciplinary research centre, an academic centre to support academic programs, skilling centre to build the employable human resource, incubation centre to encourage innovation and the strategy centre to bring nuanced policy framework. The demographic advantage in the region can be leveraged with real implementation of the UDA framework for achieving the objective of “Towards a Resilient Region, Prosperous Economies, Healthy People”.
In the 25th year of their existence the BIMSTEC could be looking at a more holistic and nuanced approach to achieving their stated objectives. The Digital Oceans construct driven by the UDA framework will give more teeth to their initiative and ensure good governance.