Sovereignty and sensitivity

In the larger scheme of things, highway markers — the reflective stickers on railings that guide traffic on Bhutan’s steep mountain roads — should not be a big issue. But when the Border Roads Organisation, which helps build Bhutanese roads under Project Dantak, decided in July to make those markers in shades of the Indian tricolour, it raised red flags among the Bhutanese on social media. Citizens were worried that this was an attempt by India to impose its flag on their countryside. This wasn’t a first. In April last year, the Department of Roads had to remove a board which read “Dantak welcomes you to Bhutan” at the Paro international airport. And on the Thimphu-Phuentsholing arterial highway, another board that credited the “Government of India” had to be painted over. Eventually, in the recent case, which was covered by the national weekly The Bhutanese , the Minister for Public Works stepped in, and the stickers were changed to blue and white. 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 — for example, the hydropower projects where delays in constructing and commissioning in Bhutan by Indian companies have led to the country’s burgeoning national debt. Although the government agreed to raise tariffs for the original hydropower plant in Chukha (by about 30 paisa per unit) in February this year, other tariffs will need to be renegotiated too. In addition, India’s power-surplus status and the advent of other renewable energies like wind and solar power will make it more difficult for Bhutan to ensure that its hydropower sector becomes profitable. And unless India finds ways to help, it will be accused of the same sort of “debt-trapping” that China is accused of today. India also needs to focus on policing cross-border trade better. The goods and services tax still hurts Bhutanese exporters, and demonetisation has left lasting scars on the banking system. The China question The biggest issue between India and Bhutan will remain how to deal with China. The Doklam crisis has brought home many realities for the Bhutanese establishment. The first is that 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 — again. Experts point out that 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. “We will continue to discuss Doklam de jure , but the situation has changed drastically de facto, ” said one Bhutanese expert. After Mr. Modi’s Wuhan outreach and several meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Bhutan too has decided that there is little point in avoiding engagement with China. China’s Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou’s July visit to Thimphu was an outcome of this stance.

Source : https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/sovereignty-and-sensitivity/article24733448.ece

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