[15 March 2024] The Hindu Op-ed: Bhutan’s opening move, its Gelephu gambit

Mains PYQ Relevance: 
How does illegal transborder migration pose a threat to India’s security? Discuss the strategies to curb this, bringing out the factors which give impetus to such migration. [UPSC 2014]

Border management is a complex task due to difficult terrain and hostile relations with some countries. Elucidate the challenges and strategies for effective border management. [UPSC 2016]

‘China is using its economic relations and positive trade surplus as tools to develop potential military power status in Asia’, In the light of this statement, discuss its impact on India as her neighbor. [UPSC 2017]


Prelims: Bilateral Relations; Neighboring Countries;

Mains: Bilateral Relations; Neighboring Countries;

Mentor comments: Bhutan’s Gelephu project, aims to create a “Gelephu Mindfulness City” as a carbon-neutral economic hub spanning 1,000 square kilometers. This initiative focuses on sustainable industries like IT, education, and healthcare, positioning Gelephu as an investment destination and health and wellness center. This project is aligned with Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness philosophy, aiming to drive regional development and job creation responsibly. The project is crucial for Bhutan’s economic challenges, including the need to boost tourism revenues and address outmigration of youth seeking jobs abroad. Along this infrastructural learning, we need to align India’s involvement with its regional connectivity to emphasize the importance of land-based connectivity throughout Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.

Let’s learn. 

Why in the News?

The recent project by Bhutan government of “Gelephu Mindfulness City” holds geopolitical significance, offering Bhutan a controlled way to engage globally while managing relations with China. 

About the Gelephu Project:

The Gelephu Mindfulness City project in Bhutan is a significant initiative envisioned by His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck to create a unique economic hub with a focus on sustainable development and cultural preservation.

This project involves the establishment of a Special Administrative Region (SAR) covering 1000 square kilometers, emphasizing conscious and sustainable businesses inspired by Bhutan’s spiritual heritage and values.

The SAR will have executive autonomy, legal independence, and will prioritize businesses that align with Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness philosophy, aiming to drive regional development and job creation responsibly.

India’s involvement aligns with its regional connectivity plans, emphasizing the importance of land-based connectivity across South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.

How are Bhutanese concerns aligned with India?

1) Geographical concerns:

  • Floods: With warmer temperatures than in the mountains, Gelephu gets high amounts of rainfall during a monsoon season that lasts several months, leading to considerable flooding each year.
  • Habitat and Conservation Issues: The surrounding forests and wildlife populations place Gelephu right in the middle of elephant corridors.

2) Geopolitical concerns:

  • China Factor: Pressure from its northern neighbor China to conclude a boundary resolution deal and to establish diplomatic ties.
    • Far away to the south, Gelephu offers Bhutan a way to open itself up in a controlled manner to the rest of the world, while also continuing negotiations with Beijing for a stable border.
  • Security Issues:Insurgencies in Assam and the northeastern states and just across the Indian border in Myanmar have been an area of great concern in the past.
    • This has led to a major military operation (Operation All Clear) by Bhutan’s former king in 2003, working with the Indian Army to drive out militant groups sheltering in the area.
  • Administrative Concern: As Gelephu is landlocked, it is dependent on primarily India, to provide the infrastructure for trade and transport out of the special administrative region.

3) Economic concerns:

  • Lag in Decision Making: Apart from hydropower, tourism is Bhutan’s mainstay, but the kingdom has always discouraged mass tourism, preferring instead a “high value, low volume” motto to ensure sustainability.
    • Bhutan needs to scale up its capacity to take in more tourists and visitors and land bigger planes in the narrow Paro valley.
  • Financial need for infrastructure: The Gelephu project involves scaling up the Gelephu airport and tarmac to international standards, which will need financing and expertise from India.
  • Employment issue: The growing “outmigration” of Bhutanese youth in search of jobs abroad is another challenge, and the government hopes a mega project such as Gelephu will stem that.
Prevailing India-Bhutan Relationship:

Officially, the diplomatic relations between Bhutan and India were established in January 1968. This Bilateral relationship is majorly guided by the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty.

Article 2 of the Treaty declares that India would not interfere in Bhutan’s administrative affairs and the latter would be guided by the former’s advice in its external relations.

Economic Cooperation:

Since 2014, India’s trade with Bhutan has almost tripled from USD 484 million in 2014-15 to USD 1422 million in 2021-22. This accounts for about 80% of Bhutan’s overall trade, with the balance of trade in India’s favor.

India is the leading source of investments in Bhutan, comprising 50% of the country’s total FDI. Interestingly, Bhutanese currency Ngultrum is officially pegged to the Indian Rupee.

Infrastructural Cooperation:
India has constructed three Hydroelectric Projects (HEPs) in Bhutan: 336 MW Chukha HEP, 60 MW Kurichhu HEP and 1020 MW Tala HEP. These three plants are operational and export surplus power to India. Hydropower projects in Bhutan are an example of win-win cooperation, providing a reliable source of inexpensive and clean electricity to India, generating export revenue for Bhutan and cementing our economic integration.

Growth Cooperation:
For the 12th Five-Year Plan of Bhutan, India is assisting Rs. 45 billion.

What needs to be India’s current interest w.r.t the recent escalating Geopolitics?

  • Climate Change: India’s plans for a South Asian power grid (through Solar and Wind power generation projects) that would draw electricity from Nepal and Bhutan, with supply to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka would lend itself to more consistent power supplies needed for Gelephu.
  • Connectivity: Nearly decades of deteriorating ties with Pakistan have seen the Indian government virtually cut off any plans for land connectivity over India’s western border. The International North-South Transport Corridor, faces western sanctions, the IMEC and I2U2 initiative are challenged by Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.


At the 7th Indian Ocean Conference 2024, External Affairs Minister highlighted the need for lateral land-based connectivity across the Indian Ocean region, which is essential to supplement and complement the maritime flows. The Gelephu project offers a chance for the region to conjure an imagination beyond the problematic present. Although it is a huge gamble for Bhutan, but also a potential game changer for the region, with help from India.



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