In the first ever in person meeting with Indian ministers in more than two years, the Minister of Economic Affairs Loknath Sharma went to Delhi on January 10 with a host of issues from difficulty in exporting vegetables to hydropower to the third internet gateway.
Lyonpo met the Indian Power Minister Raj Kumar Singh and Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla.
P I barrage
With the Punatsangchu I project right bank never stabilizing despite several expensive repairs, a third party foreign expert hired by DGPC has recommended abandoning the current dam site and going for a barrage.
However, the main P I consultant Central Water Commission (CWC) still thinks the dam is the way forward. The Bhutanese side no longer wants the dam and prefers the barrage option given the data and past experiences.
The MoEA minister said that on the dam versus power barrage it is not yet time to take the decision, but he mentioned to the Power Minister and the GoI side is aware.
Lyonpo said the Barrage DPR is being done and it will be ready by February end.
“I mentioned that we will share it then and we can discuss the best options. The independent review has come up with that option and once the DPR is done then we will exchange and then a decision could be made,” said Lyonpo.
He said the other side has not decided on the dam or the barrage, but they will definitely consider the RGoB’s views and the best thing is to wait for the detailed scientific DPR of the barrage option. Then only will the decision will be made.
Lyonpo said that scientifically the barrage option is the better option.
The 2,560 Sunkosh MW project has been stuck for a while and is looing increasingly unlikely due to its costs and also the resultant tariff rates. Moreover, Bhutan and India have not been able to agree on a model to construct the project.
Lyonpo said, “On Sunkosh we have asked them to let us know if they are doing or not doing the project.”
Lyonpo said it is true that they are not very keen in the same existing Inter-Governmental modality and so maybe a new modality should turn up.
“We have intimated that what discussions must happen at the technical level at working groups for Sunkosh if they are still interested. They are not saying that they are not interested. They are interested but maybe the modality has to be discussed. So I have requested to initiate the discussions,” said Lyonpo.
Lyonpo said that ultimately for Bhutan it needs money for building the project and the other thing is market access for Sunkosh power in India. He said that both governments had a common interest on keeping the project cost low.
After Bhutan shut its borders due to the pandemic there has been difficulties in exporting Bhutanese vegetables into India due to the formalization of trade. While exemptions have been granted the problem areas are still to do with potatoes, areca nut and ginger due to various standards in India.
Bhutan is also unable to import wooden boxes from India required for apples and oranges export due to certain UN phyto sanitary standards which Bhutan cannot meet.
The local wood industry could barely meet 25 percent of the demand and that too at Nu 100 (40 subsidized by the government) compared to the Indian rate of Nu 60 per box.
The request that Lyonpo went with to India is to provide exemptions to Bhutan until the infrastructure can be set up on both sides and farmers can be educated.
Lyonpo said that he conveyed the issue and the India side said will look into this issue.
Bhutan’s request for a third internet gateway from Bangladesh via India has been pending for three elected governments with the main barrier being the high costs being asked by various parties to transport the internet on the narrow Indian stretch.
Bangladesh recently announced a friendship rate of USD 3 per mbps.
Lyonpo said, “We have flagged them on the third internet gateway as Bangladesh recently gave it to us for USD 3 per mbps and now from the Indian side if they can also give a friendly rate. From their side they are positive about helping, but I could not meet the relevant ministry. I have flagged this to the commerce minister and they are going to look into this.”
The request is to get the third gateway via the existing link from Bangladesh to Agartala and then take a line to Gelephu.
Lyonpo said Bangladesh is giving a friendship rate for the 3,000 km of cable coming from Singapore and now the hope is India will give a special rate for the much shorter stretch.
Lyonpo sad he has requested USD 1 to 1.5 per mbps rate.
Exporting power to Bangladesh
Lyonpo said he also communicated to the Power Minister for market access for hydropower and also for market access to export power to Bangladesh.
“I asked if this could be supported as the two Prime Ministers of Bhutan and Bangladesh already agreed on hydropower cooperation between Bangladesh and Bhutan,” said Lyonpo.
He said Bangladesh needs power and Bhutan has asked GoI for support to access and trade power with Bangladesh.
“It is in an initial stage and there is no indication that they will not support. I am sure this will come out in a positive way,” said Lyonpo.
The minister said it will be good for Bhutan to diversify its power market as India builds more of its own power capacity.
Lyonpo said in his meeting with the Commerce Minister they mentioned and reemphasized the discussions of the commerce secretary level and for all that there is very positive support.
Lyonpo said they will assist in the trade inconsistencies.
Lyonpo said the meeting with the power minister went very well and they are very supportive towards Bhutan and the Power Minister said he will consider Bhutan’s interest and go with it.
Lyonpo said the Commerce Minister Piyush Goel was very supportive in all the trade related issues which were flagged off. He said similarly the Foreign Secretary was also very supportive and invited him for lunch.
Lyonpo said the two ministers made time for him and welcomed him warmly even though the budget session is coming up in Parliament.
“I met all three and we should be able to resolve all those glitches,” said Lyonpo.
Lyonpo also discussed a proposed rail link to Gelephu and the issue of BHEL taking the MHPA to court (see separate stories on page 1).
Lyonpo had actually planned to go to the Vibrant Gujarat summit where he planned to meet the Power and Commerce Ministers on the sidelines, but since the summit was cancelled due to Omicron he decided to meet them in Delhi.