Bhutan- India relations

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Bhutan-India relations: the 1960s onwards

Suhasini Haidar | The crossroads at the Doklam plateau | JULY 26, 2017 | The Hindu suhasini.h@thehindu.co.in


There are many strings that tie Bhutan to India in a special and unique relationship, but none are as strong as the ones laid down on the ground: 1,500 km, to be precise, of roads that have been built by India across the Himalayan kingdom’s most difficult mountains and passes.

Since 1960, when Bhutan’s King Jigme Wangchuk (the present King’s grandfather) entrusted the then Prime Minister, Jigme Dorji, with modernising the country, that had previously stayed closed to the world, those roads built and maintained by the Indian Border Roads Organisation (BRO) under Project Dantak have brought the countries together for more than one reason.

A one-way street?

“All the new roads [they] proposed to construct were being aligned to run southwards towards India from the main centres of Bhutan. Not a single road was planned to be constructed to the Tibetan (Chinese) border,” recounted one of independent India’s pioneers in forging ties with Bhutan, Nari Rustomji, a bureaucrat who also served as the Dewan, or Prime Minister, of Sikkim from 1954 to 1959, in his book Dragon Kingdom in Crisis . When the Chinese presented a fork in the road, Rustomji said, “with feelers to bring Bhutan within the orbit of their influence”, Bhutan stood firm in “maintaining an independent stand”.

Just a few years later, during the India-China war of 1962, Bhutan showed its sympathies definitely lay with India, but it still wouldn’t bargain on that independent stand: when Indian soldiers retreated from battle lines in Arunachal Pradesh, they were given safe passage through eastern Bhutan, but on the condition that soldiers would deposit their rifles at the Trashigang Dzong armoury, and travel through Bhutan to India unarmed. (The rifles lie there till today.)

Bhutanese- Chinese discussions about Doklam

The Doklam plateau is an area that China and Bhutan have long discussed, over 24 rounds of negotiations that began in 1984. In the early 1990s China is understood to have made Bhutan an offer that seemed attractive to the government in Thimphu: a “package deal” under which the Chinese agreed to renounce their claim over the 495-sq.-km disputed land in the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys to the north, in exchange for a smaller tract of disputed land measuring 269 sq. km, the Doklam plateau. Several interlocutors have confirmed that the offer was repeated by China at every round, something Bhutan’s King and government would relay to India as well. While India was able to convince Bhutan to defer a decision, things did change after India and Bhutan renegotiated their friendship treaty in 2007, and post-2008, when Bhutan’s first elected Prime Minister Jigme Thinley began to look for a more independent foreign policy stance. Some time during this period, the PLA is understood to have built the dirt track at Doklam that is at the centre of the current stand-off, including the “turning point”, and the Bhutanese army appears not to have objected to it then.

During the next five years of his tenure, Mr. Thinley conducted more rounds of talks, including on the ‘Doklam package’, and even held a controversial meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (in Rio de Janeiro, 2012), suggesting that Bhutan was thinking of establishing consular relations with China, much to India’s chagrin. During this time, Bhutan also increased the number of countries with which it had diplomatic relations from 22 to 53, and even ran an unsuccessful campaign for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

By 2013, India took matters in hand, and the Manmohan Singh government’s decision to withdraw energy subsidies to Bhutan on the eve of its general elections that summer contributed to Jigme Thinley’s shock defeat. When the new Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay’s government prepared his first round of boundary talks with Beijing a few months later, New Delhi took no chances. It dispatched both National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh to Thimphu to brief him. China, it would seem, realised it could no longer press the Doklam point, and a year later even offered India the Nathu La pass route through Sikkim for Kailash-Mansarovar yatris.

With the latest stand-off, that includes the cancellation of the Nathu La route, China appears to be back in the eastern great game that Bhutan has become, or an “egg between two rocks”, as a senior Bhutanese commentator described it. India must also consider that the PLA road construction that brought Indian troops to Bhutanese territory may be what is known as a “forcing move” in chess. By triggering a situation where Indian soldiers occupy land that isn’t India’s for a prolonged period, Beijing may have actually planned to show up India’s intentions in an unfavourable light to the people of Bhutan.

Bhutan is also the only country in the region that joined India in its boycott of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s marquee project, the Belt and Road Initiative. In China’s thinking, any reconsideration of Bhutan’s unique ties with India, forged all those decades ago in asphalt and concrete, would be not only a prize, but possible payback.

Project Dantak, 1961: Border Roads Organisation

Border Roads Organisation

Brig PKG Mishra

Bhutan is a beautiful country nestling in the Eastern Himalayas. Its snow capped peaks, turbulent rivers with wide green valleys at high altitudes, steep hilly terrain and thick forest over, create a magnificent landscape. Bhutan has an area of 46,620 Sq km and lies between the parallel ranges of the outer Himalayas in the north and inner Himalayas in the south. Annual rainfall varies between 500 mm to 2,000 mm in the northern region and from 2,000 mm to 5,000 in the south. The southern ranges are broken gorges scoured out by the main rives of Bhutan, the Amochu (Torsa), the Wangchu (Raidak), the Mochu (Sankosh) and the Dongme Chu (Manas) which flow mostly in the north-south direction and being snow fed carry substantial flow during the non-monsoon months. The mountain spurs run in north-south direction and descend from heights of over 6,000 m to the foothills near the Indo-Bhutan border.

By the end of year 1960, Bhutan had realized the need to planned social and economic development. Therefore, His Majesty the late King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck launched the First Five Year Plan (1961 - 1966) in July 61. Until 1960, Bhutan had no motorable roads. It was connected only by footpaths and mule tracks. As development of roads and transport system play a vital role in the economic and social development of the country, primary importance was given to these sectors during the first three Five Year Plans of Bhutan. Total grant of development of roads was 58.7% in First Five Year Plan, 34.9% in Second Five Year Plan, 17.8% in Third Five Year Plan, 11.6% in Fourth Five Year Plan, 15.3% in Fifth Five Year Plan, 9.3% in Sixth Five Year Plan and 7.8% in Seventh Five Year Plan. It was against this background that Project Dantak came into being.

Project Dantak was raised in May 1961 at Samdrup Jongkar in Eastern Bhutan. A humble beginning was made in bamboo huts and thatched roofs. Since then Project Dantak has not looked back. It has contributed to economic growth of Bhutan by not only developing roads and tele-communication net works but also other prestigious works throughout Bhutan. Over the years, Project Dantak has constructed 1500 Km of roads, airfield at Paro and Yangphula, number of helipads, tele-communication net work in Bhutan, Indo-Bhutan Microwave link, Bhutan Broadcasting Station, the prestigious India House Complex, Chukha Hydel Housing Complex, Hydel Sub-stations, river training works, Schools and Colleges. The list of accomplishments is endless and in the coming years it is hoped that works like Infrastructure for Kurichu Hydel Project, Dungsum Cement Plant and Tala Hydel Poject will be added.

Today Dantak is a household name in Bhutan. It has carved a niche in this beautiful foreign country with the goodwill of citizens of Bhutan, Royal patronage of His Majesty, the King of Bhutan and the support of the Indian Embassy in Bhutan.

Bhutan-India relations: 2012-13

Ex-PM’s Global Moves Left New Delhi Cold

Keshav Pradhan | TNN

The Times of India 2013/07/12

Bhutan’s relations with the UN Big Five

New Delhi is understood to be upset (in 2012-13) with the manner Bhutan under Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) allegedly overlooked India’s basic national interests in the past five years.

Bhutan’s stated policy is that it won’t allow the UN Big Five to have diplomatic missions in Thimphu. But, New Delhi believes, Bhutan circumvented this by appointing a Briton to act as UK’s honorary consul in its capital and subsequently gave him Bhutanese citizenship. This, many felt, is not in alignment with Bhutan’s stated policy. So far, the kingdom, acknowledged as India’s staunchest ally worldwide, had refrained from taking any such step in deference to Delhi’s security concerns.

Meeting with Chinese premier: 2012

Ex-PM Jigmi Y Thinley’s critics in Bhutan and India claimed that the first strain in bilateral ties appeared over the way he described his meeting with then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in 2012. They alleged that although the meeting was “pre-arranged”, Thimphu projected it as “an impromptu interaction”. They were of the view that such “distortion” of facts made New Delhi suspicious of Thimphu’s intentions.

India, Thinley’s detractors claimed, did not take kindly to the alleged use of Chinese experts to instal heavy machinery in Bhutan. For China, they said, investing in a small country like Bhutan is a pittance.

Amid reports of friction in India-Bhutan friendship, New Delhi [in June 2013] cut cooking gas and kerosene subsidies for Bhutan. This not only became an election issue but also spread fear among the Bhutanese that India would punish their country because of diplomatic reasons.

The opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) defeated the then-ruling Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) in the 2013 elections. On August 1 India restored subsidized gas supply to Bhutan.

Direct friendship with the palace and the people

Many saw New Delhi’s decision to invite the King to 2013’s Republic Day ceremony as a signal that it wants to directly deal with the palace and the people. All Bhutanese Kings, according to them, have been great protagonists of India-Bhutan friendship.

A revision of the India-Bhutan Treaty, 1949

It was perhaps because of this that New Delhi in 2007 agreed to revise the 1949 India-Bhutan Treaty after the king reportedly expressed his wish to have an agreement suitable to a country on the threshold of democracy. The revised treaty gave Thimphu freedom to pursue an independent foreign policy. A year later, the kingdom embraced democracy.

The revision of the treaty enabled the DPT government to extend Bhutan’s diplomatic ties from 21 to 53 countries between 2008 and 2013. New Delhi apparently wanted Thimphu to take geo-political realities into consideration while expanding its diplomacy across the globe.

Bhutan’s political system

In 2008, DTP won 45 of 47 seats and PDP two.

Bhutan follows a bi-party system. In the primary round that was held weeks ago to choose the top two parties for Saturday’s polls, DPT won in 33 and PDP 12. The remaining two seats went to Druk Nyamdrup Tshogpa that merged with the PDP.

June 2014: Indian PM's tour

10 key points of PM Narendra Modi's Bhutan visit

The Times of India TNN | Jun 16, 2014

His 2-day Bhutan trip was Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first foreign trip since assuming charge. During Modi's tour, both countries reaffirmed their commitment to extensive development cooperation and discussed ways to further enhance economic ties.

Here are some of the key points of Modi's visit to the Himalayan nation:

1. India and Bhutan reiterated their commitment to achieving the 10,000 MW target in hydropower cooperation and not to allow their territories to be used for interests "inimical" to each other.

2. Modi inaugurated one of India's assistance projects - the building of the Supreme Court of Bhutan and laid foundation stone of the 600MW Kholongchu Hydro-electric project, a joint venture between India and Bhutan.

3. India also announced a number of measures and concessions including the exemption of Bhutan from any ban on export of milk powder, wheat, edible oil, pulses and non-basmati rice.

4. The two sides recalled the free trade arrangement between them and the expanding bilateral trade and its importance in further cementing their friendship.

5. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also mooted the idea of an annual hill sports festival with India's northeastern states along with Bhutan and Nepal.

6. Modi announced doubling of scholarships being provided to Bhutanese students in India which will now be worth Rs 2 crore.

7. India will also assist Bhutan set up a digital library which will provide access to Bhutanese youth to two million books and periodicals.

8. Both India-Bhutan reaffirmed their commitment to extensive development cooperation and discussed ways to further enhance economic ties.

9. Modi described Bhutan as a natural choice for his first visit abroad as the two countries shared a "special relationship.

10. The fact that the Prime Minister chose Bhutan as his first foreign destination assumes significance since China has lately intensified efforts to woo it and establish full- fledged diplomatic ties with Thimphu.

Economic cooperation

12th 5-year plan: ₹4,500 cr grant

Doklam fresh in mind, India promises ₹4,500cr to Bhutan, December 29, 2018: The Times of India


Aid To Help Neighbour’s 5-Year Plan

PM Narendra Modi announced that India would contribute Rs 4,500 crore to Bhutan’s12th five-year economic plan after a meeting with visiting Bhutanese PM Lotay Tshering, a significant outreach with an important neighbour who occupies a strategic geography between India and China.

A transitional Trade Support Facility of Rs 400 crore over a period of five years was also announced to strengthen bilateral trade and economic linkages.

Modi assured Tshering, who took over as PM last month, that India would continue to play the role of a reliable friend and partner for Bhutan. The meeting was aimed to cement ties with the new government and though India’s relations with China have improved, the shadow of the military standoff at Doklam in 2017 only underlined the importance of stable relations with Bhutan.

The new five-year plan of Bhutan began this year and will end in 2022. Underscoring the importance of hydropower projects in India’s relations with Bhutan, Modi said work on the Mangdechhu project would soon be completed. Mangdechhu is a 720 mw hydroelectric project on the Mangdechhu river in central Bhutan. The river projects will serve to increase the already close economic linkages with the Himalayan nation.

Tshering, who is said to be contemplating plans to diversify Bhutan’s economy, acknowledged that hydropower had been the main source of revenue for Bhutan. “We are very, very happy that the government of India is fully committed to support whatever negotiations that are going on for determining tariff for power from Mangdechhu project as well as to make Sankosh (hydropower) project happen as soon as possible,” he said.

The two leaders reiterated their commitment to jointly develop 10,000mw of hydropower generating capacity in Bhutan. Modi thanked Tshering for deciding to introduce in Bhutan the Indian RuPay card which is a debit and credit card payment network. Tshering said Modi had promised to help Bhutanese traders hit by GST implementation in India.

Hydel partnership

2018-19: Mangdechhu power project

PTC inks pact for 720 MW Mangdechhu plant in Bhutan, August 19, 2019: The Hindu Business Line


The Mangdechhu plant is a 720 MW run-of-river power project built on the Mangdechhu river in Trongsa Dzongkhag district of central Bhutan. The project is funded by a mix of debt and grant from India.

The project is estimated to generate 2,923 GWh (2.923 billion units) of electricity and offset 2.2 Mt of CO2 a year. The energy generated will be transmitted to India through Jigmeling and Salakati sub-station. The Ministry of Power has allocated this electricity to the states of Assam, Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal.


India’s Bhutan hydel project ready, December 4, 2018: The Hindu


Cooperation in Mangdechhu power project a sign of strong ties: Vijay Gokhale

India is expected to commission a major hydropower project in Bhutan, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said.

Delivering a speech on India-Bhutan relations, the top diplomat said cooperation in the hydropower sector was a sign of strength of the time-tested ties between the two countries.

“This year we hope to commission the flagship 750-megawatt Mangdechhu hydropower project, hopefully this month itself, and we are also working on a number of ongoing and planned projects that will ensure our relationship in this sector continues in the future,” said the Foreign Secretary assuring Bhutan of India’s commitment to work with the Himalayan country.


Adapting to the times

The Mangdechhu project was bagged by the Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. (BHEL) and it will be implemented on a bilateral basis. The Foreign Secretary said India-Bhutan ties had adapted to the changing times. Bhutan’s latest democratic election had firmed up its position as a leading democracy in the region, he said.

Commissioning of the project will mark a highpoint in bilateral ties.

The official said India and Bhutan were now interacting at the level of parliamentarians and civil society participants, while also maintaining close dialogue at the official levels.

See also

Bhutan: Foreign policy

Bhutan- China relations

Bhutan- India relations

Bhutan: Government

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