The Bhutanese Editor Tenzing Lamsang interviewed the Indian Ambassador Jaideep Sarkar on a host of current issues like hydropower, BBIN, regional tourism, 12th plan and more.
Editor: What is the progress on the MoU on the trilateral hydropower cooperation between Bangladesh Bhutan and India ? The GoI recently asked for some changes in the MoU and RGoB sent back a reply requesting for the original MoU to be kept as far as possible. Is there any information on GoI’s latest stand on that request?
Ambassador: Recognizing the advantages of sub-regional cooperation, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh have agreed in principle on trilateral cooperation in hydro-electric power. Modalities of the cooperation and implementation of identified projects are to be decided upon by a Steering Committee that will be set up with concerned representatives of all three countries. The three governments are in the process of concluding an agreement in this regard.
Editor: The RGoB is understood to have sent a response on the Indian Power Ministry’s Cross Border Trade in Electricity Guidelines (CBTE) stating that certain provisions would impact the JV projects. There is also understood to be other concerns from Bhutan on the CBTE from Bhutan’s side especially as it would impact Bhutan’s ability to trade power in India’s power market and also limit the type of hydropower investments in Bhutan. Are these concerns being looked into and what will the future course be on the CBTE?
Ambassador: The guidelines on cross-border trade on electricity (CBTE) have been framed with the objective of providing greater transparency and predictability in regulatory approaches and to facilitate cross-border trade of electricity. The guidelines layout the overall framework for cross-border trade of electricity. Detailed procedures will be laid-out in the regulations, which will be issued separately.
The Royal Government of Bhutan has shared with us their observations on the CBTE and sought clarifications on certain aspects of it. Matters relating to the CBTE are under discussion between the two sides. Our general approach in such matters has been to take a step-by-step approach.
For example, one of the issues raised by the Kholongchhu project authorities was to seek a priori unrestricted access to the power trading market. We had responded that the guidelines themselves provide for extending the trade to other categories of contract based on a review and that this would be considered by the Government of India in due course of time. I am confident that with consultations and close coordination between the two sides, we will be able to address all matters relating to the CBTE guidelines. Cooperation in the energy sector is one of the central pillars of India-Bhutan economic partnership, and India is committed to working together with the Royal Government of Bhutan to deepen the cooperation for mutual benefit.
Editor: Though there is an agreement between the two countries facilitating free movement of vehicles and people there is growing concern from various stakeholders that Bhutan will not be able to carry or cope with the mass infusion of regional tourists (mainly from India )due to limited infrastructure and there are already impacts and concerns over waste, safety of tourists etc. This feeling in a way contributed to the political opposition to BBIN in the Parliament. Does the GoI appreciate Bhutan’s need to address this unique but important issue of regulatiing regional tourism for Bhutan?
Ambassador: The Royal Government of Bhutan’s policy on tourism is the subject of an internal debate. As you are aware, Bhutanese nationals enter India freely whereas Indian tourists require permits to enter Bhutan. Our interest is to have a smooth system of entry for bona fide Indian tourists at the border. In recent months, we have been getting a number of complaints from Indian visitors regarding delays in getting permits. We are working with the Royal Government of Bhutan to address this problem and appreciate their cooperation.
Editor: While the DPR for Sunkosh is complete the GoI approved budget for the Kuri Gongri project. Is there any discussion or decision on the implementation of these projects which fall within the committed 10,000 MW projects category?
Ambassador: Both Sankosh and Kuri-Gongri are large hydel projects. At present, the Detailed Project Reports for both projects are being prepared or being finalized. The projects will go through various stages of examination and evaluation before decisions are taken by both sides on implementation. At present, the two sides are already implementing three projects – Punatasanchhu I, Punatasanchhu II and Mangdechhu. In addition, the two governments are working to implement four more projects through the Joint Venture model.
Editor: In the 11th plan India contributed the largest share of Nu 45 bn not to mention another Nu 5 bn for the ESP leaving aside the grants and loans for hydro projects. Are there already discussions on the commitment for the 12th plan especially given recent information that projected revenue from hydro projects for the 12th plan would be delayed due to delays in the major ongoing projects?
Ambassador: We had taken part in the recently held 13th Round Table Meeting of Development Partners at which presentations were made on the guidelines for the preparation of the 12th Five Year Plan. India and Bhutan have annual plan talks to review India’s assistance for the Five Year Plan, including the progress in implementation of agreed bilateral projects. At present, we are in the early stages of discussions on Government of India’s assistance for the 12th Five Year Plan. Our effort will be to support the Royal Government of Bhutan’s determined plans, programmes and priorities. We expect to have more concrete discussions on this issue at the next annual plan talks which will be held later in the year.
Editor: Bhutan agreed to allow the three other BBIN countries to go ahead with the BBIN agreement as Bhutan took its own time in the due procedures and process in Bhutan. There are already efforts in the Parliament to defer the Bill as currently support for BBIN looks difficult Would it matter if Bhutan took a very long to decide ? Also, would the other three countries and especially India be willing to make some concessions in the protocols for Bhutan given its unique position of being the smallest and most vulnerable member of BBIN ?
Ambassador: The BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement was signed in Thimphu in 2015. India, Bangladesh and Nepal have already ratified the Agreement. The Agreement is not an agreement for free movement of vehicles.
The Protocol that would implement the Motor Vehicles Agreement provides flexibility and each country can regulate the number of vehicles that would enter and the extent of the authorized routes. These aspects are to be specified by the parties in the Schedules to the Protocol.
Due consideration can be given to Bhutan’s concerns while finalizing these details.
Editor: How would you describe the current state of relations between India and Bhutan?
Ambassador: The relations between India and Bhutan have never been better and our engagement is expanding rapidly in different areas.
The Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi chose Bhutan to be the first country that he visited after taking office.
The visit symbolized the importance of Bhutan in India’s foreign policy. But it was also a first step in Prime Minister Modi’s ‘neighbourhood-first’ policy that held up the India-Bhutan partnership as a model for the neighbourhood. In a speech, Prime Minister Modi summed up the relationship as follows: ‘Bharat for Bhutan and Bhutan for Bharat’. These sentiments have been fully reciprocated by His Majesty and the Royal Government of Bhutan and the relationship has benefitted from His Majesty’s personal guidance, leadership and commitment
The India-Bhutan relationship can be compared to a kushuthara, a treasured product created through different patterns and weaves and constantly evolving with time.