(Practice Question: There have been comments about Indian interference in Bhutan’s sovereignty. Do you agree with this position? What should be India’s course of action to address such questions of interference? – 150 words.)
Author: Suhasini Haidar
There are heightened sensitivities in Bhutan as it heads to its third general elections. The National Assembly of Bhutan was dissolved recently and an interim government was appointed. This will also mark 10 years of democracy in Bhutan.
The political parties in Bhutan have raised various ‘sovereignty’ issues in respect to India-Bhutan relations.
Acts which were seen as ‘interference’ by India into Bhutan’s sovereignty:
1. The Indian Border Roads Organisation, which helps build Bhutanese roads under Project Dantak, decided in July to make highway markers in shades of the Indian tricolour, it raised red flags among the Bhutanese on social media. Citizens were worried that this was an attempt by India to impose its flag on their countryside. The Minister for Public Works stepped in, and the markers were changed to blue and white.
2. In April 2017, the Department of Roads had to remove a board which read “Dantak welcomes you to Bhutan” at the Paro international airport.
3. On the Thimphu-Phuentsholing arterial highway, another board that credited the “Government of India” had to be painted over.
4. The Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government’s decision to cut cooking gas subsidy just before the 2013 elections in Bhutan has often been shown as proof of Indian interference.
What should be the course of action for India:
India must step lightly and thoughtfully around the upcoming election. The government would be best advised to keep high-profile visits at an arms length from the election process, especially given that there will be several such visits after the National Assembly is chosen.
Revisiting policies and issues – the hydropower projects where delays in constructing and commissioning in Bhutan by Indian companies have led to the country’s (Bhutan’s) burgeoning national debt. Although the government agreed to raise tariffs for the original hydropower plant in Chukha (by about 30 paisa per unit) in February 2018, other tariffs will need to be renegotiated too. In addition, India’s power-surplus status and the advent of other renewable energies like wind and solar power will make it more difficult for Bhutan to ensure that its hydropower sector becomes profitable. And unless India finds ways to help, it will be accused of the same sort of “debt-trapping” that China is accused of today. India also needs to focus on policing cross-border trade better. The goods and services tax still hurts Bhutanese exporters, and demonetisation has left lasting scars on the banking system.
The China Question – The biggest issue between India and Bhutan will remain how to deal with China. The Doklam crisis has brought home many realities for the Bhutanese establishment. The first is that Doklam, which has long been discussed as part of a possible “package solution” to the Bhutan-China border dispute, could become a point of India-China conflagration, with Bhutan becoming a hapless spectator in the middle — again. More engagement between India-China-Bhutan is needed to address this issue.
Read the full article at The Hindu.