Advancing Blue Economy (BE) goals is a resonant theme among of the Bay of Bengal littoral states. The regional integration to enhance blue growth serves as a catalyst for regional growth and development. Despite multiple government efforts to promote blue growth, there is yet no comprehensive agenda for marine governance of the littoral states. The article explores some of the existing challenges for BE in the region and for India and, suggests how an integrated strategy aided by collective investment and innovation can help the littoral states find an equilibrium between its multiple and conflicting imperatives.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his speech on the 74th Independence Day, 2020, has highlighted the contemporary context to establish harmony in relations with the neighbours and the need to establish connectivity with the island territories. Even before, in 2016, clarifying India’s strategic priorities, Prime Minister Modi had said, “It is no surprise that the culmination of both India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ happens in the region of Bay of Bengal. In 2018, former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale referred to the Bay of Bengal as a “Sub-set of growth region that we call the Indo-Pacific.” These highlight India’s key priorities with the Bay of Bengal littoral states.


On the other hand, India has been emphasising BE to advance its growth and development. India’s policy on the BE is driven by its interests in the maritime sphere. A draft released by The Government of India in 2019, on its vision of the New India by 2030, highlighted BE as one of the ten core dimensions of economic growth, stressing the need for a coherent and inter-sectoral policy approach.


But intrinsic to our growth through BE is our relationship with the littoral states; especially India’s Neighbours. India’s maritime interests extend through the Indian Ocean and the extended Pacific. A wide range of policy orientations are now palpable through India’s Sagaramala, Deep Ocean Mission, Clean Seas Programme, Project MAUSAM, and so on. It is pertinent to also note that India’s Maritime policy emphasizes an inclusive policy approach and one of the key aspects of India’s inclusivity in the maritime domain, is one of its core dilemmas and challenges, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation (BIMSTEC).


Nevertheless, it is also very discernible to note that compared to the Europe Union (EU) or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), BIMSTEC is still a very nascent organization. This gives a challenge of imagination that it once used to be one of the world’s most integrated regions until the early 20th century. Differences in socioeconomic models, changed strategic priorities, instituted borders and barriers have eroded the regional relevance. Therefore, the BIMSTEC challenge is to revive the past levels of connectivity underpinnings, attachment, and integration in the region.


Key challenges include enhancing a common understanding in defining priorities and policy approaches, especially in defining the word Blue Economy itself, as each country defines its definition in its own context and, in its own parameters. Further, any understandings or agreements brought between the nations must compete and co-exist with other existing bilateral or sub-regional connectivity initiatives.


BIMSTEC and Blue Economy Challenges


The concept of ‘sustainable development’ is resonant in the Bay of Bengal states. It has a combined population of over 1.5 billion people constituting 22.7% of the world’s population. About 200 million people live in coastal areas either partially or wholly dependent on ocean-related activities. Further, the region holds 8% of the world’s coral reefs, seagrass beds and, is home to a large number of endangered marine species. Nevertheless, marine harvesting has been a critical issue in the region. The region is plagued with overfishing due to multiple subsidies granted by the member states. With 4lakh fishing boats with 4.5 million employed in fisheries and associated activities, the bay region captures around 6 million tonnes of fish worth 2.9 billion US$ every year. 


Another problem affecting the ecology is hydrocarbon exploitation and pollution due to activities in the coastlines of the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs). Oil and residue discharges, unsustainable fishing practices, rapid plastic pollution, and synthetic trash generation have led to severe climate change concerns and vulnerability of coastal communities. The problem certainly is that Bay states have domestic policies that encourage resource exploitation which are in breach of sustainability norms.


Demographic projections point to substantial population growth in the region in coming years suggesting an impact on food security and economy from depleting marine resources. The region faces multi-dimensional challenges including sea-level rise, acidification of oceans, decreased economic productivity, and community migration. At the same time, lack of connectivity in the region amplifies the existing challenges.


On the other hand, co-operation for maritime security remains pivotal to safeguard the region’s interests, especially against expansionist players. China’s chequebook diplomacy and its generous infrastructure aids that come at a huge price have been significant concerns in the region. Further, China’s lack of concern for the sovereignty of littoral states is well-known. Participation and commitments of all the players in the region has become necessary to protect the interests of the BIMSTEC region.


Lastly, the ‘skill gap’ in the region has led to a backdrop of private investments, innovation, and technology. Further, private players have largely desisted from funding research in marine science, biology, and chemistry due to doubts in the profitability of blue ventures.


The Road Ahead


From a broader context, balance of power has created optimism for investment, development, and growth in the region. Of 14 sectors of co-operation in BIMSTEC, at least 8 are linked to BE and climate change. Hence, member states must emphasize on an inter-sectoral and multilateral approach than fairly independent strategies.


The government of India’s Draft Policy Framework on Blue Economy released in September 2020 emphasis on a range of contours on Blue Economy. The expansion of ports under Sagaramala, the “Neel Kranti” initiative,  plans to create a new Blue Economy Ministry, etc. have enunciated a greater vision for the nation. Nevertheless, it is very imperative to note that India’s policy must align with the interests of the region for a coherent and inclusive regional policy. Suggestive solutions to enhance co-operation could be the following:


First, create and enhance the knowledge sector for BE to develop, enhance and, foster scientific research on BE policy, marine sciences, biology, and technology among others in the region. Multi-sectoral integration for research, Multi regional stakeholder consultation must be intrinsic to this solution.


Secondly, create opportunities for the private sector, enhance innovation and start-ups to support aquaculture, fisheries, and marine-related business activities. Incentivising green infrastructure, technology, and innovative business models and practices for BE can be a pro-active solution.


Third, integrate and enhance Blue Economy through ‘Blue Diplomacy’. Negotiations for a robust institutional framework, co-operation and establishment of permanent committees for BE enhancement in the region is a key factor that can contribute to BE in the region.


Lastly, collective focus on practices like Market Development Systems (MDS), Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) can be emphasized. These are proven effective policies that can bring together public and private stakeholders for sustainable development. Further, it is also time for both India and the region to explore Coasean solutions, Elinor Ostrom’s works, or principles of self-governance for de-conflicting the maritime commons. These solutions also enhance participatory reform and policy process paving the road to sustainable management.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are personal.