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Expansion of connectivity with Nepal and Bhutan to boost trade and tourism: Part-I

07:38 PM Dec 08, 2023 IST | Dr Rupak Bhattacharjee
UpdateAt: 07:39 PM Dec 08, 2023 IST
expansion of connectivity with nepal and bhutan to boost trade and tourism  part i
India-Bhutan border.

India has been making concerted efforts to expand trade and commercial ties with countries in the immediate and extended neighbourhood under the Act East Policy (AEP). The primary objective of the AEP is to make India’s overall engagement with South and South East Asian countries more proactive and action-oriented. The North Eastern Region (NER), which acts as a land bridge between India and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and has vast resources at its disposal, offers enormous opportunities for New Delhi to renew old commercial and cultural ties with them.

 Assam is the largest state of the NER in terms of the size of its population, resources and market. Assam’s strategic location makes it the focal point of other regional and sub-regional groupings like Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), South Asian Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) and Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal (BBIN) initiative. Assam is also having a fairly developed transport networks including roadways, railways, waterways and airways. Guwahati is the transit point to travel between the NER and mainland India.

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New Delhi’s policy makers know well that the success of the AEP would largely depend on improved connectivity, security, political stability and all-round development of the NER. Through the AEP, the union government has stepped up efforts to address some of the intractable problems of the region including geographical isolation, infrastructure bottleneck and stagnation of industrial growth. The AEP has four key components-- connectivity, commerce, culture and capacity building. Among them, connectivity is the most important aspect and the realisation of the rest three heavily relies on the improvement of intra-regional, inter-regional and trans-national connectivity of the NER.

 In its attempts to connect the NER with South and South East Asian nations, the union government has undertaken several projects to develop physical infrastructure including roadways, railways, waterways, airways and telecommunications. External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr Subramanyam Jaishankar on August 7, 2023, has reiterated India’s current focus on the development of border infrastructure and connectivity with the neighbouring countries to enhance trade, tourism and people-to-people interactions.

Bhutanese king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk’s recent visit to India has further strengthened the bilateral ties in many areas. On November 6, 2023, the king met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and both the sides agreed on several new initiatives to boost cooperation in trade, technology, connectivity, development of border infrastructure and people-to-people relations. A joint statement issued after Modi-Wangchuk talks noted that the two sides also agreed on developing India-Bhutan collaboration in new sectors such as “broadcast form” connectivity and final location survey for the cross-border railway project connecting Kokrajhar in Assam to Gelepu in Bhutan.

Land-locked Bhutan seeks to develop rail connectivity with India to reduce its dependence on roadways for transportation of goods. The only transport link between India and Bhutan for bilateral trade and commerce is through road networks. The sole dependence on roads has resulted in significant economic inefficiencies and high transportation and logistical costs. India is Bhutan’s largest trading partner accounting for 98% of its exports and 90% of its imports, and the new rail link will further boost trade and commerce between the two BBIN countries.

In their attempts to expand trade, New Delhi and Thimphu agreed to strengthen border infrastructure, including up gradation of the existing land custom station (LCS) at Dadgiri in Assam into an integrated check post (ICP) with Indian financial assistance and to develop facilities at Gelepu on the Bhutanese side. The two countries further agreed to designate Darranga in Assam and Samdrup Jongkhar in Bhutan as the site for an immigration check post to facilitate the movement of third country nationals by land route for expanding sub-regional connectivity and promoting tourism. The joint decision to designate the Haldibari (West Bengal )-Chilahati (Bangladesh) rail link as an additional route for Bhutan’s trade with Bangladesh is also an effort in that direction.

In another development on September 23, 2022, the Bhutan government reopened India-Bhutan border gates at Samdrup Jongkhar and Gelepu along the Assam frontier for trade and commerce, official transit and tourists. Both the border gates were closed for two and half years after the outbreak of COVID-19. Earlier, the Bhutan government issued entry permits to tourists only through Phuentsholing and Paro. But recently, three additional entry gates have been opened to boost tourism.  Moreover, the Bhutan government is also trying to promote business tourism in the border town of Phuentsholing.

In its bids to expand sub-regional connectivity, the Government of India (GoI) has also undertaken a number of rail projects under the BBIN initiative. Recent reports suggest that the Union Ministry of Railways has allocated a budget of Rs 120 billion for an ambitious expansion of railway infrastructure in the NER.The budget allocation will also cover up gradation of existing railway links, electrification of railway networks and construction of new rail routes with neighbouring Bhutan and Bangladesh. It may be added that the BIMSTEC master plan for transport connectivity for the BBIN countries was released earlier this year.

The 57.5 km-long railway line project from Kokrajhar to Gelepu in Sarpang, Bhutan will establish seamless connectivity between the two BBIN nations. Reports say the Indian Railways (IR) has already completed the preliminary engineering-cum-traffic survey of the cross-border rail link which will be built with Indian support. The cost of the rail project is estimated to be $129.9 million. The foundation stone for this rail link was laid during the visit of Bhutanese prime minister to India in 2018. The IR plans to start the construction work of the rail project in 2024, and is expected to be completed in 2026.

Bhutan is keen to open more avenues to boost bilateral trade and tourism. The Kokrajhar-Gelepu rail link will be a game changer especially for Assam which shares 265.8 km-long border with Bhutan. It will facilitate export of goods, cultural exchange, and strengthen bilateral ties. On January 25, 2005, India and Bhutan signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to establish rail links between the two countries’ border towns. Under this landmark agreement, the two sides agreed to conduct feasibility studies for the extension of the IR networks from West Bengal and Assam to the nearest border towns of Bhutan.

Former Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh during his Bhutan visit in 2008 announced the Golden Jubilee rail connectivity between the two South Asian neighbours to commemorate the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to the Himalayan kingdom in 1958. Initially, an 18 km rail link between Toribari in Phuentsholling to Hasimara in West Bengal was proposed. But the rail project was not followed up due to some issues. According to reports, representatives of India and Bhutan governments met IR officials in October 2023 in Assam to discuss ways to expedite construction of five cross-border rail links, namely, Phuentsholling, Samtse, Nganglam, Kokrajhar-Gelepu and Samdrup Jongkhar listed in the 2005 MoU.

The India-Bhutan railway link will usher in a new era of connectivity and cooperation as the Himalayan nation shares a 605 km-long border with India, and also its largest development partner. During the recent bilateral talks, India and Bhutan agreed to consider establishing another rail link between Banarhat in West Bengal and Samste in Bhutan. Earlier in April 2023, Bhutan’s Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said that Thimphu would first work on this rail project before looking at connections with other regions.