Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay says he was pleasantly surprised and honoured that Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked Bhutan as his first international stop for a 2-day visit beginning on Sunday. In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, Mr. Tobgay, who replied to written questions, says hydropower is the centerpiece of Bhutan-India ties, and Bhutan recognizes that the lack of power is a constraint to India’s growth. Mr. Tobgay also addressed the contentious reachout by China, with whom Bhutan shares a disputed border.
Were you surprised that PM Modi accepted your invitation quite so soon after you met in Delhi? Why do you think he chose Bhutan as his first international destination as PM?
Given that India has so many competing priorities and that the newly elected Prime Minister could have visited any other country, it did come as a pleasant surprise. When we met in Delhi at the swearing in ceremony, I had the honour to personally deliver His Majesty the King’s invitation to the Prime Minister to visit Bhutan. The government and people of Bhutan are greatly honored that PM Modi has accepted His Majesty’s invitation and decided to visit us on the heels of assuming the highest office. I believe the PM chose to visit Bhutan first because of our deep and abiding friendship and above all because it was a genuine invitation from His Majesty the King.
You have had close interactions with the previous UPA government. How do you see the dramatic electoral turnaround against them in India, and the NDA's win?
Yes, we have enjoyed close relations with the UPA government. However, Indo-Bhutan relations established and nurtured by our Kings, today now transcend whichever political party is in power in both our countries. Bhutan also has very good relations with all the political parties in India, particularly the BJP. Our relationship is also at the level of both our civil servants as well the people. And after the transition to democracy in 2008 the previous government led by Druk Pheunsum Party (DPT) and now my own party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) continue to maintain its relations with India as the corner stone of Bhutan’s foreign policy.
As for the NDA’s win, which was an overwhelming one, that is a decision by the people of India. I have no doubt that the government under your new PM who is a great manager and leader will take India to greater heights both at the national and international level.
By his invitation to the swearing in, and pronouncements after, Mr. Modi has made it clear that he wants to put the neighbourhood first. How does one build on this thrust? What can SAARC nations do to improve their cooperation now? Even the SAFTA has still not taken off.
Prime Minister Modi’s gesture to invite SAARC leaders for the important event has given SAARC a big boost and the fact that all attended augurs well for the region. The closeness and good will among the SAARC was evident in Delhi where all the leaders turned up thanks to PM Modi’s initiative.
We have regional centers in SAARC performing great service in areas such as health, agriculture, education and forestry that could receive more attention and resources.
As South Asian Free Trade area (SAFTA), which came into being about over 20 years, naturally expectations are high. On the other hand SAFTA has expanded to include trade in services, enhanced investment, harmonized standards and customs cooperation among member states. Also, the Working Group on Reduction in the Sensitive Lists has reduced the Sensitive List by 20%. So if we keep working at it and with political will, the aspirations of SAFTA can be realized.
During your talks with Mr. Modi, what are the issues you see as most important?
During PM Modi’s visit we wish to celebrate our deep and abiding friendship. As a friend, Bhutan will be ready to discuss any issues that PM Modi may wish to raise. The gamut of Bhutan-India cooperation is wide and includes trade and investment, economic cooperation, development of hydropower, development assistance, cultural cooperation and most important of all, security interests.
For India right now, the power crisis in this heat wave is the biggest concern. The agreement with Mr. Modi for 4 new hydropower projects will of course take some time...how can Bhutan help India at this time, and has the government asked for help?
It is unfortunate that India is facing a heat wave. Lack of power is a big constraint to maintain India’s growth rate. While Bhutan has been endowed with abundant hydropower resources, so far we have commissioned three major hydropower projects while three more are under construction. The surplus electricity generated by our hydropower plants is exported to India. While there is very little we can do to alleviate the power crisis in India in the immediate future it only goes to show that Bhutan and India must tap the full potential of the hydropower industry in Bhutan, which is the center piece of our bilateral cooperation.
Cooperation in the hydropower sector is full of opportunities and both Bhutan and India have recognized this. We are seriously working on constructing seven more hydropower plants in Bhutan of which the construction of a 600MW plant will commence this year. The least we can expect for the two governments is to expedite the construction of the power plants in Bhutan to address a fraction of India’s huge demand for power.
Bhutan has wanted to raise power tariffs for India in the past (including premature raises not as per the agreement), which has caused problems between both countries...when you get past the bonhomie, how difficult will it be to discuss the tough issues between you?
If you are referring to the 336 MW Chhukha Hydropower project, which started generation since 1988, the project has been exporting surplus power to India at a tariff mutually determined by the two governments in line with Project’s Bilateral Agreement. The Agreement contains the common precepts and provisions for revision of power tariff as is the case with Tala and Kurichhu power projects. The discussions on all bilateral issues between Bhutan and India are always held in the spirit of friendship and mutual understanding, and there has never been any discontentment or difficulties that resulted due to tariff revisions. We are confident that this spirit will prevail in the future as well.
The other worry in Delhi has always been the presence of China- Beijing has made it clear it wants to set up a consulate in Thimphu...is that something you would consider?
China has not advanced such a proposal to the Royal Government. China is a neighbour and we engage regularly with it to resolve the border issue.
Everyone describes India and Bhutan as the closest allies, given their historical relations and trade relations...but is there a danger that the relationship has plateaued? What are the avenues for growth that you see between both countries?
Indo-Bhutan relation is indeed very close and is based on historical, economic, cultural factors. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s gesture to travel to Bhutan when he would have been welcomed in any other country is a reaffirmation of our friendship and proof to the world that two countries despite the differences in size can enjoy a relationship that is problem free and mutually beneficial. India is also our largest trading partner and our trade volume and value is growing exponentially every year. We have been and can continue to focus on hydropower industry. The potential for growth in trade and investment, tourism etc are limitless. Given the goodwill and trust that exists between Bhutan and India, there is still immense potential.