Bhutan and India came together this week using creative legal interpretations to save BBIN, which as a result, allows the other three countries to go ahead as Bhutan take’s its time sorting out the many concerns and issues.
This cooperation is not surprising, given the close and friendly ties between the two countries.
However, there is a good reason why BBIN is stuck in the Bhutanese Parliament and it will see an uphill battle even in the future.
The last few years have seen an explosion in the number of regional tourists especially from India, ‘discovering Bhutan.’ The majority of this group is from neighboring Indian states who participated in the mass tourism, common in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong and Gangtok in the past but now want a new destination or variety.
That also explains the high number of vehicles coming in with the number plates of neighboring Indian states.
Tourism is fine but there is a big difference in the path adopted by Bhutan, which went for high value and low impact tourism and that of Darjeeling, once India’s queen of the hills, whose own residents now pejoratively call it ‘Queen of the dustbins.’
Mass tourism has had a devastating impact on Darjeeling putting pressure on its limited resources like water, limited land being used to build ever increasing hotels and the impact on the environment. There is also a cultural impact, even though Darjeeling has historically been more exposed and cosmopolitan.
For Bhutan, all of the above is hara kiri and it deeply goes against the idea of Bhutan. It would also have a more severe impact on a comparatively less exposed people. It will also strain the limited resources and carrying capacity that Bhutan has, from roads to parking space.
In addition to the above, one unspoken but major and core factor is that Bhutan has always been strongly and rightfully protective of its sovereignty and security. This is especially so in a region of huge neighbors and huge population movements. So a core idea of nationhood for Bhutan has been the ability to control its borders and the movements of people and vehicles across these borders.
It was okay as long as the numbers from India were manageable, but the recent spike is having a telling effect right from the grass roots level.
The core heart of Bhutan and India’s close ties is common geo-strategic and security interests. Pandit Nehru did not trek across the Himalayas in the late 1950’s to open up a new tourist destination in Bhutan but it was to secure these core common geo-strategic interests.
Leaders in Delhi at the political, bureaucratic and even military level have always prided themselves in understanding Bhutan. The same goes for the leadership in Bhutan which is why relations between the two countries have always been at a high. It is now time for New Delhi to show some understanding and magnanimity to understand and adequate address Bhutan’s pressing concerns. Once that is done, BBIN will just become a formality.