The joint statement from Bhutan and Bangladesh said that the Prime Ministers of Bhutan and Bangladesh noted the substantial progress made in the past towards signing an MOU among Bangladesh, Bhutan and India on trilateral cooperation in hydro-electricity.
The reference is to the long delayed 1,125 MW run of the river Dorjilung project.
It said, “In order to move forward, they agreed that a Secretary-level meeting among the three countries should take place at an early date. They also decided to explore the possibility of bilateral cooperation in this sector.”
Lyonchhen Dasho Dr Lotay Tshering said that he had gone with the main aim of paying respect to the father of nation of Bangladesh and the project came up in the talks with his Bangladesh counterpart.
He said that the trilateral project was also raised in his last visit to Bangladesh.
Lyonchhen said that now the expert group between the countries would take it up.
The Minister for Economic Affairs Loknath Sharma said that since the two Prime Minister’s have discussed it there should also be talks at the secretary level.
Lyonpo said that the regional integration of the energy is important as this region is one of fastest developing regions in the world but there are energy shortage issues and so if there is regional integration then it will benefit all.
Lyonpo said that the Detailed Project Report for the project has been ready since 2016.
India’s role in the project is important as the power has to be evacuated via India.
This whole idea was first discussed between the three countries based on the SAARC Energy Cooperation Framework signed by all the SAARC countries in the 18th SAARC summit in November 2014. The whole idea behind this framework was to provide for better regional integration.
Druk Green Power Corporation (DGPC) then went ahead and did the Detailed Project Report (DPR) for the project which was ready by 2016.
Bhutan drafted an MoU and sent it to Bangladesh which agreed to it and signed by around February 2016. This formally brought both countries on board. A MoU copy had also been sent to India to sign but New Delhi is yet to get back to both Bangladesh and Bhutan.
Then during the visit of a Government of India (GoI) delegation from 7th to 11th April 2016 lead by the then Indian Power Secretary P.K Pujari, Bhutan raised the issue of the 1,125 MW Dorjilung project.
Former Prime Minister Dasho Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay raised the issue of Bangladesh’s investment in the Dorjilung project with the delegation that also consisted of the Joint Secretary North and Joint Secretary Hydro.
Similarly, the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MoEA) through its former Secretary Dasho Yeshi Wangdi also raised the issue in the delegation level talks between the two sides.
At the time the Indian Power Secretary is said to have expressed that the GoI is very supportive of the proposal and that the proposal is under active consideration.
Subsequently the Bhutanese government again followed up with the India on the issue and by September 2016 there was an informal understanding that India is also on board which was expected to materialize in a formal agreement between the three countries.
India wanted to take part in the inter-governmental project and wanted a role in it at the time.
However, since then the trail has gone cold.
A strategic mistake
A source said that after this Bhutan may have made a strategic mistake in its negotiations with India on this project in the time of the former government.
The source said that while Bhutan really wanted the project as this is the first time a third country is investing in Bhutan’s hydropower sector and opens the door to regional energy trade, it did not want to appear too eager to India.
In one of the discussions Bhutan as part of a now erroneous tactic of not appearing too eager left it slip to the Indian counterparts that Bhutan is okay either way with the project depending on India’s position. It was hoped that India would assent if Bhutan did not appear too eager.
It now appears that this strategy backfired in the worst way possible as India seized on this and as a result the project has been in the deep freeze ever since.
This stance extended to the current government as the Dorjilung project was earlier put in the official agenda of Lyonchhen during his 2019 visit to Bangladesh, but it was dropped later and was not a part of the official agenda.
However, even at the time the Bangladesh counterpart raised the need for the project and it came up in talks between the two Prime Ministers.
Earlier, in 2019 a source had told this paper that the government put the Dorjilung project on the backburner to get GoI on board for the Sunkosh project.
However, with the Sunkosh project heading nowhere at the moment it is significant that both Bhutan and Bangladesh have raised the need for the Dorjilung project.
India already exports power to Bangladesh.