Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk on December 18, 2023, unveiled plans for a significant urban development known as the Gelephu Special Administrative Region (GSAR). This ambitious project aims to foster economic ties between Bhutan and Assam spanning an extensive area exceeding 1000 square kilometers in close proximity with the Indian border.
During his ten-day visit to India, the King discussed the Gelephu Project with PM Narendra Modi. The project will be part of the Sarpang District Special Economic Zone (SEZ) including an international airport at Gelephu. Discussions have taken place regarding the establishment of a 58km rail connection between Gelephu and Kokrajhar in Assam. Furthermore, explorations into the feasibility of a second rail link spanning 18 km and connecting Samtse in Bhutan with Baranhat in West Bengal were also initiated.
Significance of the Project
The King Pitched the project as an economic corridor connecting South Asia with Southeast Asia via India’s northern states. He thanked PM Modi and the Government of India for agreeing to build the first India-Bhutan railway line into Gelephu, which would also connect with roadways and border trading and crossing points into Assam and West Bengal. Over time the project aims to give Bhutan access to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Singapore.
The Gelephu Project in Sarpang District to Bhutan’s south would be a special administrative region run under different laws to facilitate more international investment. The Project is expected to follow environmental standards and sustainability as a goal and will aim to attract quality investment from specially screened international companies. The plans for Gelephu include an international airport, zero-emission industries, and a mindfulness city that plays to Bhutan’s strength in tourism, wellness, and infrastructure companies. This Project is an integral part of India’s Neighbourhood First Policy.
Neighbourhood First Policy
The Neighbourhood First Policy is a foreign policy initiative introduced in 2014 with the advent of the Narendra Modi government. It emphasizes creating India’s relations with its immediate neighbors. Examples include Nepal, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan.
In the context of Bhutan, India signed the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1949. The treaty provides for among things, perpetual peace and friendship, free trade and commerce, and equal justice to each other citizens.
In 2007 the treaty was re-negotiated, and provisions were included to encourage Bhutan’s sovereignty, abolishing the need to take India’s guidance on foreign policy. The most integral part of India-Bhutan relations viewed from the lens of Neighbourhood Policy is hydropower cooperation. It comes under the 2006 Agreement on Cooperation in Hydropower. Under a protocol to this agreement, India has agreed to assist Bhutan in the development of a minimum of 10,000 MW of hydropower and import of surplus electricity from the same by 2020.
Additionally, India is Bhutan’s largest and leading development partner. Since the launch of the First Five Year Plan of Bhutan in 1961, India has been extending financial support to Bhutan’s Five-Year Plan. It has allotted Rs 4500 crore to Bhutan’s 12th Five-Year Plan.
In 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the India-Bhutan partnership forms an important component of his Neighbourhood Policy. He called Bhutan as a “trusted friend and neighbor.”
During an official visit to Bhutan in 2019, PM Modi said “The India-Bhutan partnership today is of a special character and substance and forms an important pillar of the Government of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. I am confident that my visit will promote our time-tested and valued friendship with Bhutan and consolidate it further for the prosperous future and progress of the people of both our countries,” he said in a pre-departure statement.
In particular, the two sides agreed to strengthen trade infrastructure with the upgradation of an existing land customs station at Dadgiri (Assam) to a modernized “Integrated Check Post” (ICP) along with the “development of facilities on the Bhutanese side at Gelephu”.