India, Bhutan agree on new initiatives to bolster trade, connectivity
The two sides have decided to consider establishing a cross-border rail link between Banarhat in West Bengal and Samtse in Bhutan
India and Bhutan on Monday agreed on several new initiatives to bolster collaboration in trade, technology and cross-border connectivity, including a survey for the first rail link between the two sides to be built with Indian support.
The measures were agreed on during a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and visiting Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is on a week-long trip to the country with a delegation of senior officials. The visit comes against the backdrop of reports of China and Bhutan inching towards an agreement to settle their disputed boundary.
Modi assured Wangchuck of India’s commitment to its friendship and cooperation with Bhutan and reiterated the country’s “continued and full support to the socio-economic development in Bhutan”, according to a joint statement.
Besides agreeing on carrying out the “final location survey” for the planned cross-border rail link between Kokrajhar in Assam and Gelephu in Bhutan in consultation with the Bhutanese side, the two sides decided to consider establishing another rail link between Banarhat in West Bengal and Samtse in Bhutan, the joint statement said.
Indian Railways has already completed the preliminary engineering-cum-traffic survey for the 57-km Kokrajhar-Gelephu rail link, which will be built with Indian support. The rail link is part of Bhutan’s ambitious plan to construct a special economic zone (SEZ) at Gelephu, and the project figured in Wangchuck’s discussions with Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in Guwahati last week.
In order to strengthen trade infrastructure, the two sides agreed to upgrade the existing land customs station at Dadgiri in Assam into an integrated check post with India’s support, and to develop facilities at Gelephu on the Bhutanese side.
The two sides further agreed to designate Darranga in Assam and Samdrup Jongkhar in Bhutan as the site for an immigration check post to facilitate the entry and exit of third country nationals by land route for enhancing connectivity and promoting tourism, the joint statement said.
As part of efforts to ramp up trade and connectivity, they decided to designate the Haldibari (West Bengal)-Chilahati (Bangladesh) rail link as an additional route for Bhutan’s trade with Bangladesh.
The Indian government will provide bridge financing for the period between the 12th and 13th five-year plans of Bhutan for projects and schemes aided by the Indian side, the joint statement said.
The Bhutanese side thanked India for the timely release of development assistance to ensure the smooth conclusion of crucial projects under its 12th five-year plan for 2018-23. “To take the exemplary bilateral partnership forward, the Indian side reiterated commitment to step up support for Bhutan’s 13th Five Year Plan, which was welcomed by the Bhutanese side,” the joint statement added.
Bhutan has been the biggest beneficiary of India’s external aid in the budget for 2023-24, being allocated ₹2,400 crore out of the total outlay of ₹5,408 crore for assistance to foreign countries.
The Indian side also agreed on several measures aimed at boosting cooperation in areas such as education and environmental conservation. The joint statement said India will positively consider Bhutan’s request for concessional financing for skill development and capacity building under the country’s Gyalsung Project, which is a one-year integrated training programme mandatory for all persons attaining the age of 18.
India will allocate additional MBBS seats for Bhutanese students in medical colleges in Assam to ensure access to quality medical education, and double the outlay under the ambassador’s scholarship for Bhutanese students pursuing higher education in India.
The two sides will strengthen collaboration in environmental conservation, wildlife preservation and forestry under a framework MoU as part of their shared commitment to safeguarding the region’s ecological diversity.
The Bhutan king will also travel to Mumbai, where he will interact with business leaders to explore new avenues for expanding economic and commercial ties. He is expected to seek investments for the proposed SEZ at Gelephu.
The joint statement said India and Bhutan enjoy “long-standing and exceptional” ties characterised by utmost trust, goodwill and mutual understanding. The Bhutan king’s visit was an opportunity to discuss various aspects of multifaceted bilateral ties and forge understanding to further cooperate across diverse sectors.