There is a lot of, what Indians call charchey (talk), over the visit of West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee today. This is the first time the Chief Minister is visiting Bhutan that shares a long border with her state.
The Chief Minister is leading a 19-member delegation that will meet Bhutanese counterparts over five days in the capital city. For Bhutan the visit is of great importance as it comes at a time when a lot of initiatives are being planned in the country and also in the region. We may enjoy the best of bilateral relations, but as our closest neighbour, the relation between the state government and the people assumes equal importance.
For Bhutan, West Bengal is a geographical reality. As a landlocked country, the importance of West Bengal cannot be undermined. It is our access to the sea, to other states and neighbouring countries. Trade will come to a standstill if anything happens in the neighbouring state.
We may be talking about trade with India, but in reality, a huge volume of trade actually happens between the state and Bhutan. Economically, for Bhutan centres like Kolkata, Silguri or even Jaigaon are the hubs of trading.
Almost all our exports and imports, including electricity, flow through the state of West Bengal. Most of our imports from South East Asia or China that are brought on container ships have to first arrive in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. Much of the country’s expatriates working in the construction sector also come from this state.
Apart from daily trade, the region is thinking of initiatives like the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement (BBIN MVA) where the member nations agreed to free movement of vehicles exporting or importing goods. For Bhutan all trucks carrying goods, especially perishable goods, has to come and pass through West Bengal.
The Chief Minister’s visit on the invitation of Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay also follows what the Lyonchoen said about landlocked Bhutan not being locked economically.
West Bengal’s importance to Bhutan cannot be understated. It is a vital link to Bhutan.
The Chief Minister’s presence in Bhutan will undoubtedly be welcomed by our business sector. But there is potential for even greater economic interaction. It is timely, perhaps, a little late even, that Bhutan and West Bengal are exploring more opportunities at the very top levels.
While West Bengal is a very important trade hub for Bhutan, it is imperative that we also explore how Bhutan can be as equally important to West Bengal.
Tourism is one area that readily comes to mind. Much has been said about the vast potential of the Indian market. We are already seeing this today. High-end tourism from India is already occurring, most of it has been from Mumbai. West Bengal would be an even closer source for tourism.