Ties that epitomise India’s neighbourhood first policy

There is much evidence of the unique level of trust between the leadership of Bhutan and India that has led to a strengthening of ties

March 20, 2024 12:08 am | Updated 02:05 am IST

‘India has constantly respected Bhutanese identity’

‘India has constantly respected Bhutanese identity’ | Photo Credit: PTI

People have always marvelled at how little Bhutan with an area of 38,394 square kilometre and a population of 7.7 lakh as compared with its giant neighbour India with an area of 3.28 million sq.km and a population of 140 crores have been the closest of partners and the best of friends over the past 50 years and more.

The answer is quite simple. Both nations look to each other as equals, we treat each other with the utmost respect and we have long realised that size does not really make a difference in relations between two sovereign nation states. Thus, India has constantly respected Bhutanese identity, Bhutan’s unique religious practices and its desire to be economically prosperous while retaining its own way of life. On its part, Bhutan has long known that there is no real threat to its sovereignty or identity from its southern flank. Hence, it has looked to India to help it grow, develop and prosper. India has lived up to this expectation. Over the decades this has developed into a unique level of trust amongst the leadership of the two countries. It has been in evidence in the recent past.

The Gelephu project

The King of Bhutan paid a visit to India in November 2023 during which he hinted at his plans for a Mindfulness City at Gelephu in southern Bhutan. It is to be like a Special Economic Zone to attract foreign investment and advance prosperity for that nation. Naturally, India, including its business entities, is expected to play a significant role in this effort. Simultaneously, the Gelephu Mindfulness City is to keep sustainability, well-being and environmental concerns at the forefront. Such a project is expected to lead the people of Bhutan to higher income levels while allaying any concerns about its impact on Bhutan as a carbon negative country. Gelephu city is expected to focus on human well-being too with an emphasis on yoga, rest and recreation, spa therapies and mental relaxation channels.

The visit last week by the Prime Minister of Bhutan to India was a follow-up to the king’s earlier visit and there were excellent discussions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as the President of India, Droupadi Murmu. This week, Mr. Modi is to pay a return visit to Bhutan. We must understand that any relationship, whether it is between two individuals or between two nations, needs constant tending, regular dialogue and a lot of care and cooperation. The back-to-back visits of the Prime Ministers of Bhutan and India to each other’s nations is a manifestation of this attention placed on the relationship by both governments.

This is a good augury for the continued growth and development of India-Bhutan ties. It epitomises India’s Neighbourhood First policy approach.

The anchor of hydropower cooperation

Hydropower cooperation is the bedrock of India’s relations with Bhutan. Several cooperative hydroprojects have been completed and commissioned by the two governments which supply clean electricity to India and provide Thimphu with a stream of revenue due to which it has graduated out of the Least Developed Country status. The delayed Punatsangchhu-II hydropower project is expected to be completed in 2024 — yet another successful example of the government-to-government model of cooperation in hydropower.

In recent years, a new joint venture model was developed for the construction of hydroprojects between India and Bhutan, but none of the proposed five projects has really taken off. Perhaps, it is time to acknowledge that this new proposed model is flawed and there is a need to go back to the drawing board to work out a more practical and potentially successful new model for hydroprojects.

India has also been a major development assistance partner to Bhutan and contributed ₹5,000 crore to its 12th Five Year Plan which just concluded. Critical in this process of development assistance is the fact that India does not merely undertake projects which are of benefit to it but pays a lot of attention to the priorities of the Bhutanese people so that projects of direct benefit to them are constructed. Such confabulation and discussion is an integral part of the successful partnership for prosperity between New Delhi and Thimphu. It is critical that this model continues in the future too.

Measures to consider

In the years ahead, India must contribute to the success of the Gelephu Mindfulness City and can perhaps consider the following measures: commence direct flights between Mumbai/Delhi and Gelephu; provide our technology and knowledge in building hard infrastructure to Bhutan (the private sector will take the lead); encourage high-end Indian tourists and businesspersons to visit Gelephu in controlled numbers; Encourage Indian businesses to set up shop in the city.

Gelephu is next to remote parts of West Bengal and Assam and the success of the Mindfulness City will have positive socio-economic spillovers for these geographies as well. It will provide yet another example of the win-win cooperation between India and Bhutan.

Gautam Bambawale is a former Indian Ambassador to Bhutan and is currently trustee of the think-tank, Pune International Centre

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