Prime Minister Narendra Modi is starting his two-day visit to Bhutan today. PM’s visit is important because the bilateral relationship is at the crossroads.
These three emerging policies of India figure severely in these bilateral exchanges.
First, the sub-region of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) covers the 10 eastern-northeastern states of India. This sub-regional unit spans various regions – bio-diversity, water, cultural ecology, mineral resources, historical trade connectivity, pilgrimage, traditional medicinal practices and agricultural heritage.
The relatively rapid and concrete progress made by other sub-regional groups also affected this sub-region. India’s pre-enactment policy is the key to this sub-regionality initiative. It reconstructs the post-Partition disruptions and contentious contacts and provides the entire sub-region with a potential path for economic revival.
Multimodal connectivity through other interventions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Highways and South Asian Sub-Economic Cooperation (SASEC) has provided an incentive for many stakeholders to act and participate in these ventures.
Young Bhutanese entrepreneurs can now invest in the Northeast under the lucrative North East Industrial Development Scheme. This will give Bhutan an opportunity to diversify its basket of exports.
Can Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh be included as partners in India’s Act East policy so that a Bhutanese businessman can use the Indo-Myanmar and Thailand tripartite highway and ports such as Sittwe in Myanmar and Chittagong in Bangladesh? The India-ASEAN summit, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the official deliberations prevailing in the BBN can be adapted in this way. Protocol and framework already exist.
Second, there are major vulnerabilities associated with climate change that have increasingly affected Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas in terms of food security, traditional livelihoods, water flow in its rivers and natural disasters. Out of the total area of 3.84 million hectares, arable land is more than 13%, with arable land barely 8% with a dependence of 58% of the population. Invasive wild animals are destroying crops.
In 2010 the 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Thimphu issued an important statement on climate change and decided to face the dual challenge of addressing the negative impact of the event. As part of its action plan on climate change, it formed an intergovernmental expert group to develop clear policy direction and guidance. At the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to comply with the provisions of the Paris Agreement, both Bhutan and India supported nationally determined contributions. This is likely to trigger tangible changes in the future energy mix. Bhutan plans to remain carbon-neutral in view of its transition in 2009, and is committed to keeping 60% of its forest area.
India and Bhutan can now establish the first mountain port focusing at Bhutan’s state-of-the-art climate change centre. It will address issues ranging from agricultural heritage to glacial melt, wildlife conservation, new diseases to animal husbandry, new genes and infections from disasters and livelihoods to genetic mutilation and piracy. This core institution across the Himalayan region will ensure institutional connectivity, knowledge exchange, information sharing and capacity building on mountain ecosystems and the initiative of the Commission.
And, third, it allows Bhutan to build a larger playground in terms of its power generation and exports. A recent study for AEAN and East Asia by the Jakarta-based Economic Research Institute emphatically states that there is a high potential for electricity trade and economic integration with Bhutan as the central actor in the eastern periphery of South Asia .
Bhutan’s installed capacity of 1,614 MW (capacity of 30,000 MW) makes it the country with the highest per capita power consumption (2800 kWh) in South Asia. It contributes more than a third of the government’s revenue; More than 9% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and more than 10% of total export income. Its dependence on commercial energy is much lower (24%) than in Nepal’s 87%. As the strongest exporter of clean energy, it is set to grapple with the market reality that by 2020, South Asia is expected to host five of the world’s 11 megacities. And by 2040, the urban population is likely to be 48.6% of the total population, compared to 38.3% in 2010.
It is in this context that India has to recognize its third trident in its role as its producer, exporter and transit provider. The two signed the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation in Kathmandu in 2014 and awaited India’s most anticipated