Foreign Policy Watch: India-SAARC Nations

[op-ed snap] Sovereignty and sensitivity: on India-Bhutan relations


Mains Paper 2: IR | India & its neighborhood- relations

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Border Roads Organisation, Project Dantak

Mains level: India’s efforts in helping Bhutan in building infrastructure & its effects on foreign policy


Highway building in Bhutan & issue of encroaching rights

  1. The Border Roads Organisation, which helps build Bhutanese roads under Project Dantak, decided in July to make highway markers in shades of the Indian tricolour
  2. Highway markers are the reflective stickers on railings that guide traffic on Bhutan’s steep mountain roads
  3. Citizens were worried that this was an attempt by India to impose its flag on their countryside
  4. The incident was a blip in India-Bhutan relations

Issues that can be resolved in coming months

  1. The ensuing months may also be a useful interlude to revise India’s Bhutan policy and address several issues that have come up in the past few years
  2. These include the hydropower projects where delays in constructing and commissioning in Bhutan by Indian companies have led to the country’s burgeoning national debt
  3. India also needs to focus on policing cross-border trade better
  4. The goods and services tax still hurts Bhutanese exporters, and demonetisation has left lasting scars on the banking system

Dealing with China

  1. The biggest issue between India and Bhutan will remain how to deal with China
  2. The Doklam crisis has brought home many realities for the Bhutanese establishment
  3. 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
  4. China’s actions since last June, to build a permanent military presence above the stand-off point, mean that Bhutan has a much-reduced advantage in any forthcoming negotiations on the issue

Way Forward

  1. Unless India finds ways to help Bhutan, it will be accused of the same sort of “debt-trapping” that China is accused of today
  2. India must step lightly and thoughtfully around the upcoming election
  3. Raising concern about highway sticker may be a small incident but it is a clear indicator of heightened sensitivities in the Himalayan kingdom and India should take steps to ensure that the sovereignty of Bhutan is not compromised in its support efforts
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