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Wednesday, Sep 18, 2019

As Modi visits Bhutan, a blueprint for ties

The PM’s trip to Bhutan is important because the bilateral relationship is at acrossroads. Three emerging policies of India remain critically juxtaposed in these bilateral exchanges.

opinion Updated: Aug 17, 2019 01:17 IST
Mahendra P Lama
Mahendra P Lama
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort on the occasion of 73rd Independence Day. PM Modi begins his two-day visit to Bhutan today.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort on the occasion of 73rd Independence Day. PM Modi begins his two-day visit to Bhutan today.(Photo: PTI)
         

Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins his two-day visit to Bhutan today. The PM’s trip is important because the bilateral relationship is at acrossroads.

Three emerging policies of India remain critically juxtaposed in these bilateral exchanges.

First, the sub-region of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) incorporates India’s 10 eastern-northeastern states. This sub-regional entity spans various sectors — bio-diversity, water, cultural ecology, mineral resources, historical trade connectivity, pilgrimages, traditional medicinal practices and agricultural heritage.

The relatively quicker and tangible progress made by other sub-regional groupings influenced this sub-region too. India’s Act East Policy is core to this sub-regionalism initiative. It rebuilds the post-Partition disruptions and defunct connections and provides a potential path to economic revival to the entire sub-region.

Multimodal connectivity through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) highways and other interventions such as the South Asian Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) has provided an impetus to a variety of stakeholders to act and participate in these ventures.

Young Bhutanese entrepreneurs can now invest in the Northeast under the attractive North East Industrial Development Scheme. This will provide Bhutan an opportunity to diversify its basket of exports.

Could Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh be included as partners in India’s Act East policy so that a Bhutanese trader can use the India-Myanmar and Thailand trilateral highway and ports such as Sittwe in Myanmar and Chittagong in Bangladesh? The protracted official deliberations in the India-Asean Summit, Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) and BBIN could be transformed in this way. The protocols and frameworks already exist.

Second, there are major climate change-related vulnerabilities that have increasingly affected Bhutan and the eastern Himalayas in terms of food security, traditional livelihoods, hydrological flows in its rivers, and natural disasters. Out of its total area of 3.84 million hectares, agricultural land constitutes over 13% of which arable land is hardly 8% with dependence of 58% of its population. Invasive wild animals are destroying crops.

The 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit in Thimphu in 2010 issued an important statement on climate change and decided to face the dual challenge of addressing the negative impact of the phenomenon. As part of its Plan of Action on Climate Change, it constituted an inter-governmental expert group to develop clear policy direction and guidance. In order to comply with the provisions of the Paris Agreement at the 21st Conference of Parties (CoP), both Bhutan and India avowedly declared Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. This is likely to trigger tangible changes in the future energy mix. Bhutan plans to remain carbon-neutral, in keeping with its transition in 2009, and is committed to keeping 60% of its forested territory.

India and Bhutan can now establish the first mountain port focussing on a state-of-the-art climate change centre in Bhutan. This will address issues ranging from agricultural heritage to glacial melt, wildlife protection to animal husbandry, new genres of diseases and disasters to migration of transhumance and livelihood to genetic degeneration and piracy. This core institute in the entire Himalayan region will facilitate institutional linkages, sharing of knowledge, information and ensure capacity building and commission initiatives on mountain ecosystems.

And, third, allowing Bhutan a larger playing field in terms of its electricity production and exports. A recent study done by the Jakarta-based Economic Research Institute for AEAN and East Asia emphatically states that the high potential of electricity trading and economic integration with Bhutan as the central actor in the South Asia’s eastern periphery.

Bhutan’s installed capacity of 1,614 MW (potential of 30,000 MW) makes it a country with the highest per capita electricity consumption (2800 kWh) in South Asia. It contributes over one-third of the government’s revenue; over 9% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and over 10% of its total exports earning. Its import dependence on commercial energy is much lower (24%) as against 87% of Nepal. As the most robust exporter of clean energy, it is ready 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 as against 38.3% in 2010.

It is in this context that India has to increasingly recognise its third trident in its role as power producer, exporter and transit provider. Both the Saarc Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation signed in Kathmandu in 2014 and India’s much awaited Guidelines for Import / Export (Cross Border) of Electricity 2018 now make electricity trading in the BBIN sub-region a core issue. They make India a pivot as a transit provider. This could actually trigger grid harmonisation, grid code and security, investment and finance, reforms and regulatory framework and tariff negotiations where India’s Northeast region could emerge as power pool.

(Mahendra P Lama is a senior professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)

First Published: Aug 17, 2019 01:17 IST