The Bhutanese have been cautious not to give hasty promises; but it can hardly be debated that they have been smart in using hydro resources both as strategic leverage and as a source of income, something that Nepal has been perpetually unable to do despite possessing 42,000 MW that is potentially feasible to be harnessed.
While participating in regional conferences 12 years ago, I used to tease my Bhutanese friends that their country was still under an absolute ruler while we had a functioning parliament, a full-fledged democratic constitution with a titular monarchy and elected local bodies. Today, they have got everything while we have lost all the above. They even managed to revise the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of 1949 and sign a new one in 2007 which no longer mandates India to look after their foreign and defence policies. Furthermore, their per capita GDP has tripled in the last decade, making them the second richest country in South Asia after the Maldives. The World Bank has graduated them from a low-income to a low middle-income country. Bhutan’s economy is projected to grow 7.2 percent this year which is the highest rate in South Asia.
A lot of this buoyancy and optimism stems from far-sighted planning and steadfast implementation of several hydropower projects that give the country substantial revenue. The bulk of the electricity produced at Chukha (336 MW), Kurichu (60 MW) and Tala (1,020 MW) is exported to India. Bhutan has also begun work on a set of new hydropower projects totalling over 11,000 MW to be commissioned gradually over the next 10 years. The projects include the massive 4,060 MW Sunkosh project, the largest in South Asia.
Along with India’s rapid industrialisation and modernisation, demand for electricity in Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal and the seven north-eastern states has jumped. Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar made his first foreign visit to Bhutan after being re-elected in May 2011 and requested more electricity. Earlier, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Bhutan in 2010 and sought cooperation in the power sector.
The Bhutanese have been cautious not to give hasty promises; but it can hardly be debated that they have been smart in using hydro resources both as strategic leverage and as a source of income, something that Nepal has been perpetually unable to do despite possessing 42,000 MW that is potentially feasible to be harnessed. Today, we are power deficient to such as extent that there could be about 18 hours of rolling blackouts this winter.
There are hydro experts who debate that Nepal is a much more complex polity with a population 50 times greater and rivers that are international borders. They argue that irrigation and flood control are as important to Nepal as electricity. But it is also true that we have now become an importer of power from India. Largely due to political instability, labour unrest, corruption, myopic vision of policymakers and lack of consensus on how to forge an understanding with India, Nepal’s hydro resources are still under-developed, forcing people to live in darkness while a much smaller neighbour like Bhutan marches ahead.
Since the refugee exodus in 1991, there has been constant and accelerating change in the political, economic and social conditions in the sub-region and indeed inside Bhutanese society. Thimpu’s another success story is its laudable efforts to protect its environment. It has given a lot of emphasis to forest conservation and issues of Drugpa identity, such as the national dress, national values, rootedness and Gross National Happiness. It is here that it is confronted with numerous geo-strategic and internal challenges. Bhutan is reticent about the ethnic composition of its population, but some researchers have estimated that a whopping 40 percent comprise Nepali-speaking people. Like others in the neighbourhood, it also faces a transformational security environment that demands the future shape of Bhutan’s strategic choices.
To what extent can Bhutan continue to pursue its compulsory national dress and national language policy? Similarly, how long can it stick to its classical international relations principle of not having diplomatic relations with any of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council? Today, it has diplomatic relations with only 46 countries. In fact, just three countries — India, Bangladesh and Kuwait — have residential embassies in Thimpu. The result of this self-isolation was its defeat in the UN Security Council elections earlier this month. But wealth and relative political stability could become an ideal springboard for rapid advances in interactions with the international community along with engagements with major powers. Bhutan’s relations with India are marked by total trust, hence increased cooperation with major powers is not likely to impinge Indo-Bhutan relations that is solid and time-tested.
The lingering issue of Bhutanese refugees has hindered the progress of Nepal-Bhutan relations for over two decades. There are influential voices within Nepal against forging better political, cultural and economic relations as this may dilute the core issue of refugee repatriation and make Thimpu content with the current state of affairs. They hold a firm view that Bhutan must show serious commitment to what it has agreed upon earlier and implement decisions reached in respect of the refugees and show a positive gesture towards Nepal by reactivating the stalled bilateral process, and only then will there be normalisation of relations. On the other hand, there is also increasing realisation that mutually beneficial avenues in the tourism, sports, trade and investment sectors need not be kept hostage till the remaining refugees are either repatriated or resettled. For instance, there has never been a bilateral official visit at the head of state level between the two neighbours, a brutal fact that needs to be redressed.
So far, about 70,000 refugees have been resettled, with 60,000 of them going to the US. A fresh, compelling geo-strategic bent on this issue is that the second largest cluster of Bhutanese citizens are now living in the US. They are spread across the 50 states, working in Wal-Marts, active in the social media, sending remittance back to the refugee camps and offering unstinting support to a final settlement to the problem. Unfortunately, there has seldom been an attempt at Track I or Track II diplomacy to see Nepal-Bhutan relations in their totality. But the time has come to analyse the future of our bilateral relations beyond the current murky environment to find solutions to the challenges facing us.
Pandey holds a PhD from Tribhuvan University on Multi-Ethnicity of Bhutan and Nepal-Bhutan Relations and is the director of the Centre for South Asian Studies
Courtesy : The Kathmandu Post