India, Bhutan to discuss new routes of regional connectivity

In Delhi, Bhutan’s 5th King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and PM Modi held discussions on the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation and regional and global issues of mutual interest, says Ministry of External Affairs

November 06, 2023 10:27 pm | Updated November 07, 2023 01:59 am IST - NEW DELHI:

While no mention was made of India’s overhanging concerns over Bhutan’s boundary delimitation agreement process with China, the Ministry of External Affairs said the two leaders “held discussions on the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation and regional and global issues of mutual interest”.

While no mention was made of India’s overhanging concerns over Bhutan’s boundary delimitation agreement process with China, the Ministry of External Affairs said the two leaders “held discussions on the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation and regional and global issues of mutual interest”. | Photo Credit: PTI

India and Bhutan agreed to discuss new routes of regional connectivity, and upgrade border and immigration posts to support Bhutan’s 5th King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s plans for a smart city at Gelephu on the border between Bhutan and Assam, after his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi on Monday.  While no mention was made of India’s overhanging concerns over Bhutan’s boundary delimitation agreement process with China, the Ministry of External Affairs said the two leaders “held discussions on the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation and regional and global issues of mutual interest”.

Apart from a decision to go ahead with the final survey for the 58 km cross-border rail link between Gelephu and Kokrajhar in Assam to be built by India, the two sides agreed to explore a second rail link for about 18 km between Samtse in Bhutan and Banarhat in West Bengal tea gardens area. India also agreed to allowing Bhutanese trade items to be carried further on from Haldibari in West Bengal to Chilahati in Bangladesh. The rail connectivity could in the future assist air connectivity for Indians in the northeast as well, as Bhutan plans to build an international airport at Gelephu as part of the larger Sarpang district Special Economic Zone, new initiative expected to be announced by the Bhutanese King on December 17.

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“[The Bhutanese King] shared valuable perspective and insights on ongoing reforms process under way in Bhutan,” said a joint statement issued by both countries at the end of the meeting.  “Prime Minister [Modi] reaffirmed India’s abiding commitment to its unique ties of friendship and cooperation with Bhutan and reiterated continued and full support to the socio-economic development in Bhutan based on the priorities of the Royal Government and as per the vision of His Majesty,” it added.

Development assistance

The Bhutanese King also thanked the government for its development assistance for Bhutan’s 12th Five-Year plan, (2018-2023) that ended on October 31 this year, and India reiterated its commitment to support the new 13th Five-Year Plan as well.

Explained | Why are the China-Bhutan boundary talks significant? 

Apart from the go-ahead for the two short distance cross-border rail link projects, India and Bhutan agreed to designate the Darranga-Samdrup Jongkhar border crossing between Assam and Bhutan’s less developed-South Eastern district as an immigration check post, so as to allow third country nationals to enter and exit as well “for enhancing connectivity, and promoting tourism”, the joint statement said.

In particular, the two sides agreed to strengthen trade infrastructure with the upgradation of an existing land customs station at Dadgiri (Assam) to a modernised “Integrated Check Post” (ICP)  along with “development of facilities on the Bhutanese side at Gelephu”, indicating India’s support to the Bhutanese SEZ project.

Easing travel between the two countries, and allowing further exchanges to Bangladesh is expected to help raise Bhutanese opportunities for trade and travel, and bring in much needed tourism revenues for the neighbouring country. Bhutan’s economy, that has been hit by the COVID pandemic and after-effects of a very strict lockdown in the country is expecting to grow by a modest 4.3%, lower than the sub-regional average, and is expected to face long-term impact due to a net-out migration by its youth, who are seeking education and jobs in other countries. Low forex reserves and a major public debt, with an estimated 125% Government Debt to GDP ratio in 2022, largely made up of debt to India, are further adding to Bhutan’s worries. The Bhutanese King’s plans for Gelephu and the special economic zone, that he had first discussed with Mr. Modi during a visit in April 2023, is targeted at increasing opportunities for work and tourism in Bhutan.

After visits to Guwahati and Delhi, King Jigme Khesar will fly next to Mumbai, where he is expected to meet with the heads of “several top business houses”, an official said, with plans to explore investment and collaborations for Bhutan’s infrastructure.

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