Digital connectivity in the Bay of Bengal - an Indian perspective Bipul Chatterjee is Executive Director, and Sidharth Narayan an Assistant Policy Analyst, at CUTS International, a global think- and action-tank on trade, regulations and governance India suffers from low levels of connectivity and cooperation with its neighbours. South Asia is amongst the least connected regions1. Low intra-regional trade is testament to this. A World Bank report (2014) estimated it to be five per cent of South Asia’s total trade, as compared to 50 per cent in East Asia and 22 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa2. From an Indian perspective, in 2018 the country’s regional trade stood at US$19.1 billion, which was a mere three per cent of its global trade. There is potential to increase this (India’s regional trade in South Asia by another US$43 billion3. However, given India’s relationship with Pakistan, coupled with the lack of progress of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC, established in 1985), India is now looking to the Bay of Bengal region for regional cooperation through the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)4. India’s non-participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative has made BIMSTEC even more important for the country, for strengthening its own economic and strategic ties in South and Southeast Asia5. Notably, such cooperation also forms an integral part of its Act East Policy (erstwhile Look East Policy), which seeks to focus on commerce and connectivity in the region6. As a trade bloc, BIMSTEC comprises some of the fastest growing economies of the world, with intra-regional trade amongst the members touching six per cent in just about a decade of its formation7. Focus on information & communication technology Formed in 1997, BIMSTEC focuses on technical and economic cooperation, including in the field of technology, which is led by Sri Lanka. Table 1 traces the history of intended cooperation between the member countries in this realm8. Such cooperation is also likely to spur a regional digital economy, which holds immense potential for growth in the Asia-Pacific region. Southeast Asia’s digital economy alone poised to cross US$200 billion by 20259. Accordingly, BIMSTEC also needs to capitalise on the current and future digital boom, and strive to enhance cooperation in the field of ICT. The importance of digital technology in trade has been mentioned below10: Enable participation of businesses across borders to create and participate in Regional Value Chains (RVCs) and Global Value Chains (GVCs) in a digital economy; Strengthen and encourage the use of e-commerce platforms or digital marketplaces, for cross-border trade; Enhance efficiency, productivity and innovation of businesses in member countries; Overcome deficient trade due by overcoming barriers of inaccessible markets, and inefficient logistics11; Complements physical connectivity, thereby enhancing regional integration, ie. it has potential to compliment India’s land and maritime connectivity; BIMSTEC nations share similar socio-economic and digital connectivity conditions, as elaborated in Annexure - A; Technological collaboration will also bolster people-to-people connect in the region. India’s emphasis on digital connectivity Recognising such potential of regional cooperation on digital technology, India is committed to enhance its digital connectivity with its immediate and distant neighbours, through its Neighbourhood First policy. A few notable initiatives in this regard are mentioned below: Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) GSAT-9 communications satellite, (also called South Asia Satellite), was launched in 2017 to provide benefits of resource mapping, distance education, telemedicine, weather forecast and natural disasters warning systems, to Bhutan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Thimphu Ground Station in Bhutan has been set up for the same12. Land locked by five neighbouring countries – Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China, North-East India was dependent on the Guwahati-Kolkata-Chennai optic fibre cable route for its internet. However, the region got its own International Internet Gateway (IIG) in Agartala in 2016, which is connected terrestrially with Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar submarine cable station. Bangladesh Submarine Cable Company Ltd (BSCCL) has been exporting 10Gbps of internet bandwidth it. One of the recommended solutions to overcome the technical deficiencies and for the optimal utilisation of the Agartala IIG is to set up a Gateway GPRS Support Node (GGSN)13 at a cost of Rs 300 crore14. However, due to technical deficiencies, only 60 percent of the available bandwidth is being utilised, despite there being additional demand15. Notably, Bangladesh is going to be getting its third international submarine cable soon16, which provides further opportunity for collaboration between the two countries. In order to boost its digital connectivity, India is striving for installing a regional high-capacity fibre-optic network, with ASEAN countries. India also aims to strengthen domestic digital connectivity of Myanmar (also a BIMSTEC member) and of other countries in the region, such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos17. The way forward It is an imperative for BIMSTEC members to expand their intra-regional digital connectivity and to expand digital economy of the bloc. This can be done through in following manner: Ensure effective and timely implementation of the initiatives as discussed above. More such initiatives for strengthening digital connectivity may be identified and implemented. Given in the box story below is an example of the same. Sign a comprehensive Agreement on Digital Connectivity for enabling a framework on relevant aspects of digital economy at a regional level. These may relate to sectors such as: finance, insurance, health care, education, governance, and retail. Such an FTA would also act as a template for other areas of cooperation. India is already implementing digital connectivity initiatives in Africa, such as the e-VidyaBharati (pertaining to tele-education) and e-ArogyaBharati (pertaining to tele-medicine). Similar such initiatives are required to be undertaken with BIMSTEC members as well19. A possible such area of cooperation pertains to setting-up data centres in India, which has been captured in the box story below. India may leverage its membership with the ‘Quad’22 in the Indian and Pacific oceans, and use the technological expertise of other member countries for technology transfers/imports, building capacity on technical knowhow, enhancing innovation and R&D, and skill development for BIMSTEC countries. A noteworthy area in this regard, would be on cyber security, as given in the box story below.

Table 1. History of cooperation

... cooperation is also likely to spur a regional digital economy, which holds immense potential for growth in the Asia-Pacific region



Enhancing mobile connectivity in India-Nepal border


Enhancing India’s data centre (DC) capabilities for the BIMSTEC members

Many villages adjoining the Indo-Nepal border have been relying on expensive satellite phones for mobile connectivity, or on Nepalese telecom companies. Not only civilians, but security forces are also unable to get access to crucial mobile connectivity in the sensitive bordering areas. Signals are either weaker or completely unavailable in select areas18. Mobile towers erected in the region suffer from marred effectiveness and utility due to the mountainous terrain. India and Nepal may cooperate with each other for installing technically feasible towers and strengthening digital connectivity in the region. India is one of the global leaders in the ICT/IT-BPM sector. Industry experts believe that India provides a strategic location in the context of setting up DCs from the point of view of catering to the needs of its smaller neighbours such as Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. These other country’s data may also be stored in DCs located in India, considering their increasing need for data processing, data storage and co-location services. This would not only reap trade benefits, but also strengthen digital cooperation in the BIMSTEC region, and bring in international diplomatic advantages20. Notably, this is also coherent with India’s proposal to roll-out a policy for building data centres in the country21.


Cyber security in the BIMSTEC region

In the wake of enhanced cyber security risks, countries have moved to engage with each other on forming a consensus amongst them to enhance their cyber defence to counter both internal, as well as external threats. China has been making technological investments in various Central and Southeast Asian countries, which helps it to enhance its regional power and also shape the region’s cyber security policies and practices. Countering the same may be of interest to Quad members, considering today’s geo-political scenario. The ever-increasing uptake of digital technologies by Asian populations, the recent cyber-attacks witnessed by some BIMSTEC countries, and the looming threat of the Beijing Cyber-consensus23, may prompt enhanced cooperation between Quad and BIMSTEC. Action may be taken to train cyber-security personnel in India, the requirement for which stands at a whopping 30 lacs against a current supply of mere 1 lac24. Japan has already expressed its interest in cooperating with India in this regard. The exchange of Information Technology (IT) personnel between the two countries, along with cooperation in incubating start-ups in the field of cyber security needs to be soldered with financial and technical assistance flowing from Japan to India25, for the larger benefit on BIMSTEC.

Annexure - A: a snapshot of digital developments of BIMSTEC countries26

Endnotes 1. Countries forming a part of South Asia include eight countries, namely: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives. These also form the SAARC countries. 2. A Glass Half Full: The Promise of Regional Trade in South Asia, available at:, accessed on 19.05.2020 3. India’s trade with neighbours only 31% of total potential: World Bank, available at:, dated 25.09.2018, accessed on 19.05.2020 4. BIMSTEC is a grouping of seven countries in South Asia and South East Asia: India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal, and Bhutan 5. Sambandh as Strategy India’s New Approach to Regional Connectivity, available at:, accessed on 19.05.2020 6. Look East, Act East ~II, available at:, dated 10.07.2019, accessed on 19.05.2020 7. SAARC vs BIMSTEC: The search for the ideal platform for regional cooperation, available at:, dated 23.01.2018, accessed on 19.5.2020 8. BIMSTEC Technology Cooperation, available at:, dated 30.04.2018, accessed on 19.05.2020; and BIMSTEC and The Fourth Industrial Revolution: The Role of Technology in Regional Development, available at:, dated 03.2020, accessed on19.05.2020 9. The Fourth Industrial Revolution: The Role of Technology in Regional Development, available at:, dated 03.2020, accessed on19.05.2020 10. A Digital Direction for BIMSTEC, available at:, dated 10.2017, accessed on 18.05.2020 11. Strengthening the Global Trade and Investment System for Sustainable Development, available at:, dated 08.2015, accessed on 19.05.2020 12. PM Modi Inaugurates ISRO’s South Asia Satellite Ground Station in Bhutan, available at:, dated 19.08.2019, accessed on 20.05.2020 13. A Gateway GPRS Support Node (GGSN) is part of the core network that connects GSM-based networks to the Internet. The GGSN, sometimes known as a wireless router, works in tandem with the Serving GPRS Support Node (SGSN) to keep mobile users connected to the Internet and IP-based applications., accessed on 12.04.2018 14. Deb seeks central funds, available at:, dated 11.04.2018, accessed on 20.05.2020 15. Tripura IT minister says India is underusing its third international internet gateway, available at:, dated 15.03.2017, accessed on 20.05.2020 16. Bangladesh to link with 3rd submarine cable next June, available at:, dated 22.01.2020, accessed on 20.05.2020 17. Keynote Address of Secretary (East) at the Joint Inaugural Session (Business & Academic) of Delhi Dialogue IX, available at:, dated 05.07.2020, accessed on 18.05.2020 18. 30 border villages lack mobile connectivity; residents use Nepal telecom SIM cards, available at:, dated 14.03.2016, accessed on 31.05.2018 19. Address by Foreign Secretary at the Regional Connectivity Conference: South Asia in the Indo-Pacific Context, available at:, dated 01.11.2018, accessed on 18.05.2020 20. Conducive Policy & Regulatory Environment to Incentivise Data Centre Infrastructure, available:, dated 05.2016, accessed on 20.05.2020 21. Budget 2020 proposes to roll-out new policy for building data centre parks, available at:, dated 01.02.2020, accessed on 20.05.2020 22. Quad comprises of comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia. 23. Asian Cybersecurity Futures, available at:, accessed on 20.05.2020 24. India needs 3 million cyber security professionals right now: IBM, available at:, dated 13.05.2018, accessed on 20.05.2020 25. India, Japan keen to bolster cooperation in cyber security, start-ups, available at:, dated 01.05.2018, accessed on 20.05.2020 26. Compiled from: World Development Indicators ( and Internet World Stats (, accessed on 21.05.2020