Bhutan to have 1,000-sq. km. green city along Assam border ‘connecting South Asia to Southeast Asia’

Thanking India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first India-Bhutan railway project, the King of Bhutan calls the upcoming mega project a ‘point of inflection’ and ‘transformation’ for Bhutan and South Asia

December 17, 2023 06:59 pm | Updated December 18, 2023 02:47 am IST - THIMPHU

Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck speaks during the National Day celebration in Thimphu, on December 17, 2023.

Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck speaks during the National Day celebration in Thimphu, on December 17, 2023. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Bhutan plans to build a massive “international city” in an area of over 1,000 sq. km. on its border with Assam, Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck announced to applause from a packed audience of 30,000 at the Changlimathang stadium in Thimpu on December 17, pitching the project as an “economic corridor connecting South Asia with Southeast Asia via India’s northeastern States”. 

“Around two billion people live in South Asia,” King Jigme Wangchuck said, thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Government of India for agreeing to build the first India-Bhutan railway line to Gelephu, which would also connect with roadways and border trading and crossing points into Assam and West Bengal, and over time, he said, give Bhutan access to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Singapore.

Also Read | India, Bhutan to discuss new routes of regional connectivity

“It is a period of awakening and economic transformation in South Asia, a period of growth and immense opportunities,” Bhutan’s fifth king said, adding, “There is a road and a gateway that leads to new opportunities, to markets, capital, new ideas and technology… towards our future, towards our destiny.” The crowd roared its approval.

The King’s announcement is the first official confirmation of what is known as the ‘Gelephu Smartcity Project’. It is expected to follow environmental standards and sustainability as a goal, and will aim to attract “quality investment” from “specially screened” international companies, the 42-year-old sovereign said.

Also Read | Amid China boundary talks, Bhutan King to discuss Bhutan-Assam border smart city project

Apart from an international airport, which will be Bhutan’s second, and geared to land larger planes than its present airport at Paro, the plans for Gelephu are expected to include “zero emission” industries, a “mindfulness city” that plays to Bhutan’s strength in tourism and wellness, as well as infrastructure companies. Rather than a special economic zone (SEZ), the Bhutanese King said that the Gelephu project in Sarpang district to Bhutan’s south would be a “Special Administrative Region” that would be run under different laws to facilitate more international investment. 

“This is an inflection point, a moment in history that is very important for us,” the Bhutanese King continued, switching from the local Dzongkha language to English for added emphasis on terms he hopes to popularise about the Gelephu project, including “skilling projects”, “digital infrastructure”, and “economic hub”. “What we lack in numbers, we have to make up with the quality of our people in skills,” he added.

In two separate visits to India just this year, where he met and discussed the project with Mr. Modi and Assam Chief Minister Hemanta Biswa Sarma, King Jigme Wangchuck also engaged Indian industrialists, including Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani, and owners and top executives of the Tata, Birla, and Mahindra group of companies, amongst other infrastructure, real estate, and hospital developers. 

“During my recent visit to India, the Government of India expressed their full commitment to improve and expand the major roads leading to Bhutan. They also pledged to connect two or three of our border towns with railway lines. I would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Government of India for their continued goodwill and support.”

The King’s decision to announce details of the Gelephu project created a sense of anticipation amongst ordinary Bhutanese citizens as well, and the local Kuensel newspaper billed the “Green City” plan as a “new dawn for Drukyul”, the Dzongkha name (‘land of the thunder dragon’) for Bhutan, and said that Bhutan could aspire to the success of countries like “Singapore, South Korea, and the UAE”, which had transformed from “Third World to First World” status within a generation.

The Bhutanese King’s speech came just four days after the United Nations announced Bhutan was no longer a Least Developed Country (LDC), and was leaving the LDCs, even though economic troubles have been mounting. The COVID-19 pandemic, indebtedness on hydropower projects, and drastic cuts in tourism revenues have caused an economic downturn, with GDP levels at about 4.3%, lower than other regional countries, and unemployment figures reaching 20%, which have spurred a large number of Bhutanese youth and professionals to migrate to other countries in search of opportunities.

Also Read | Closer together: On the India-Bhutan talks and the plans ahead

Chokey Dorji, 20, was among the hundreds that queued up overnight to enter the stadium, with lines snaking around the roads at the centre of the Bhutanese capital, braving sub-zero temperatures overnight to secure a seat for the morning’s address. A graduate in accounting, Mr. Dorji told The Hindu that he worries about his future, and wanted to hear about the Gelephu project as he hopes it would create more jobs for his generation. 

Ahead of King Wangchuck’s speech of over 45 minutes, the Royal Palace here made special preparations to promote the announcement without revealing too many details, and invited guests from India and several other countries, including Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France, the first time such a large international contingent has been present for what is normally a domestic affair.

From India, Madhya Pradesh hotelier and cultural activist Priyadarshini Raje Scindia, the wife of Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia; designers Manav Gangwani and Nandita Mahtani; the head of Medanta Hospital, Naresh Trahan; and internationally renowned author on spiritual wellness, Deepak Chopra, were among the special guests present at the ceremony here, which The Hindu was invited to cover.

In the evening, the King attended a rock concert at the stadium that saw artistes from Bhutan and other countries perform. In a surprise for the audience, Queen Jetsun Pema, Crown Prince Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck, and the King joined the crowds to watch the concert. 

Over the past two years, the King, who was crowned in 2008 after his father, the fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated the throne in 2006, has been travelling to all 20 districts of Bhutan, trying to speak about the Gelephu project. Officials said he also travelled to several international destinations to seek both partners, planners, and architects for the project, and prospective investors, but has carried out the most intensive diplomacy with India, which surrounds Bhutan on three sides.

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