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Bhutan and India’s Northeast

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day trip to Bhutan last week is viewed as a major positive development in the subcontinent after Pakistan’s expected expressions in the wake of India’s crucial decisions on Jammu and Kashmir earlier this month. Modi, during his visit to the Himalayan kingdom, pointed out that India-Bhutan cooperation in hydro-power and energy was exemplary. He also laid stress on building relationship between people of both the countries on a wide range of issues – from schools to space and digital payments to disaster management – in which India was eager to extend all necessary cooperation. Taking a close look at his itinerary, one finds that the inauguration of 720-MW Mangdechhu hydro-electric power plant was the most significant engagement of Prime Minister Modi in this trip, one that also holds a lot of significance for India’s Northeast. The Rs 4,500-crore project on the Mangdechhu River in Trongsa Dzongkhag district of central Bhutan is a run-of-the-river power plant, and is developed by the Mangdechhu Hydroelectric Project Authority (MHPA), which was jointly constituted by the Indian and the Bhutanese governments. This incidentally is one of the several upcoming hydro-electric projects in Bhutan with Indian support which will together start generating about 10,000-MW of power in the next couple of years, most of which will be evacuated to India. But then, while Prime Minister Modi has stated that hydropower was an important area of cooperation between the two countries which have transformed the power of the rivers of Bhutan into not only electricity but also mutual prosperity, the fact remains that there is an increasing sense of fear in downstream Assam over the possibility of flash floods in the years to come. India and Bhutan share 699 km of international boundary, of which the highest portion – 267 km – is with Assam. While at least three Assam districts – Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri – share boundary with Bhutan, several major rivers, including the Dhansiri, Puthimari, Pagladiya, Beki, Manas, Aai, Sonkosh, and several more originate in Bhutan and pass through more districts including Darrang, Kamrup, Nalbari, Barpeta, Bongaigaon and Dhubri. These districts have been experiencing flash floods almost every year in recent times including in the current year, and, given the experience of people of Lakhimpur district from the Ranganadi hydro-electric power project in Arunachal Pradesh, these fears are definitely genuine which require serious consideration. This apart, the Centre also needs to explain in detail what benefits Assam would accrue from the new Indo-Bhutan initiatives, and how these are going to contribute towards making lives of people of the lower Assam districts better in the coming years. It is encouraging that India has launched RuPay card in Bhutan, which will further enhance relationship between the two neighbours relationship in digital payments, and trade and tourism. The two countries have signed as many as 10 MoUs for mutual cooperation, which cover, among others, areas of space and satellite technology, and education. One MoU is said to be particularly about collaboration and relationship between Royal Bhutan University and IITs of India and some other top educational institutions are in line with today’s requirements for education and technology. Assam and the Northeast being closest to Bhutan, it is important for the people of the region to know whether institutions like IIT Guwahati, IIM Shillong, NERIST, the different reputed universities and engineering colleges and other top educational institutions of the region have found place in the list. Guwahati and Shillong being the closest Indian cities to the Himalayan kingdom, it is also important to promote these cities from the tourism point of view – be it spiritual, nature, wildlife or medical. Bhutan’s progress and prosperity has been inter-related with that of Assam and the Northeast since time immemorial, and it is in this backdrop that the people of the region must be at the top of the list of beneficiaries of the increasing Indo-Bhutan cooperation.

 

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