Indian Ambassador to Bhutan, Ruchira Kamboj talks to Kuensel on a host of issues 

The government has requested GoI for a million doses of Oxford vaccine (Covishield). With India starting the vaccination program from January 16, when can Bhutan expect to receive the Covishield vaccine?

January 20, 2021 was a historic day for the unique and special friendship between our two countries when Bhutan was the first among our neighbours to receive the Made-in-India vaccine.  On 16 January, 2021, Prime Minister Modi had said that India’s vaccine production capacity would be used for the benefit of humanity. He has kept to that promise, as you can see.  There is clarity in India’s vision, in the spirit of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam”, to look beyond her narrow self-interest and to work for the greater global good.

Bhutan still requires over 400,000 doses of the vaccine to start the mass campaign. Will the second consignment bring in all the 400,000 plus doses at once or will it be done in tranches?  What would be the payment modality? 

The Bhutan-India relationship is indeed uniquely special.  In this spirit, let me assure that the request of the government is prioritized with the Government of India.

In November 2020, PM Narendra Modi spoke about the progress made on the third internet gateway.  Officials say the discussion on the third gateway has reached an advanced stage.  What is the current status of introducing the long-awaited third internet gate to Bhutan from Bangladesh?

 Indeed, there is progress, it would however not be right of me to speak more on this issue when this is yet under consideration of the Royal Government.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Bhutan had to re-prioritize many planned activities.  Has that affected the budget support from India?

Not at all!  In fact, India has front loaded funds and facilitated an early release, per the wishes and priorities of the Royal Government.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, India has provided funds to the extent of Rs./Nu. 11.6 billion as part of development assistance in the form of Project Tied Assistance, High Impact Community Development Projects, Program Grants, the Transitional Trade Support Facility and the Mangdechhu Tariff Protocol.  Out of this amount, Rs./Nu. 5.01 billion was released ahead of schedule, on the request of the Royal Government. The Government of India is also facilitating the implementation of the RGoB’s priority project related to the Samrang Jomotshangkha Road, which is being executed by Project Dantak.

What are the new areas of support being discussed between the two governments?

Space is a new and emerging area of bilateral cooperation between India and Bhutan. In May 2017, the GoI had launched the South Asia Satellite (SAS). Subsequently, the Ground Earth Station of the SAS was installed in Thimphu with the support of ISRO enabling Bhutan to improve the reach of the Bhutan Broadcasting Service whilst enhancing its disaster management capacities.  In line with His Majesty The King’s vision of harnessing space technology for accelerated socio-economic development, both sides had agreed on the development of a joint satellite in August 2019. To transform this dream into reality, four young Bhutanese space engineers have joined ISRO for an intensive training in January 2021.

Financial technology is another new area of bilateral cooperation. In November 2019, we had launched the first phase of the RuPay project, a flagship digital project which allowed Indian tourists (who love visiting Bhutan for its natural beauty and glorious spiritual heritage, amongst many other things) to make cashless payments at ATMs and POS terminals in Bhutan. November 2020 witnessed the launch of Phase II of the project which will allow Bhutanese banks to issue RuPay cards for the benefit of Bhutanese citizens who travel and transit through India.

To harness the benefits of economic integration between the two countries, both India and Bhutan are also working on implementation of India’s Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) App in Bhutan. This would be another step in financial integration between the two economies and would facilitate trade, tourism and the people-to-people connection.

The pandemic has brought into sharper focus the need for countries to scale up public health infrastructure. India and Bhutan are, therefore, working on a proposal to build a Multi-Disciplinary Super-Speciality Hospital which will greatly add to Bhutan’s ability to deliver exceptional health care services to its citizens.

Knowledge truly is power and education is the premise for progress in any society. Our bilateral relationship is geared to respond to the needs of the 21st century. The integration of Bhutan’s DrukRen with India’s National Knowledge Network has created an information highway, encouraging greater interaction among universities and libraries. Going forward, we will continue to encourage more innovative tie-ups in education and digital learning.

Opening of four new trade routes: Nagarkata, Agartala, Jogighopa and Pandu, has come as a huge relief for boulder exporters in Gelephu, especially the riverine ports at Jogighopa in Assam. However, exporters are not able to take advantage of the new routes because of the infrastructural development. Any update on the infrastructure development along these routes.

At Bhutan’s request, the GoI has agreed to open five new trade routes during the past year for Bhutan’s bilateral and transit trade with India. Opening of the Ahllay route near the Pasakha industrial corridor of Bhutan helped in greatly easing the traffic congestion on the busiest route along the India-Bhutan border at Jaigaon-Phuentsholing, particularly given the restrictions at Phuentsholing with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

India also notified Nagarkata on the India-Bhutan border, which was previously a seasonal Land Customs Station permitted for trade of only three commodities i.e. ginger, orange, cardamom from August to March, as a permanent LCS without any commodity restrictions. Nagarkata will soon be operational for Bhutan’s trade with India for exporting other commodities including boulders and river bed materials, and this route is expected to greatly reduce transportation costs for Bhutanese exporters.

In December 2020, India also acceded to Bhutan’s request for opening of Agartala land port, Pandu riverine port, and Jogighopa riverine port. Requisite infrastructure is already available at all these ports – there is an LCS at Agartala, there are permanent jetties at Pandu terminal and floating jetties at Jogighopa terminal. The two governments are finalising the modalities for operationalisation of these ports for Bhutan’s trade with Bangladesh through India.

One of the main problems with exporters in Gelephu is the rate of extortion and incidental expenses they have to bear along the Indian highway while crossing two States of Assam and Meghalaya before reaching India-Bangladesh border. What could be done to promote fair practice of trade across the border while strengthening the good bilateral relationship the two countries enjoy today?

The relevant Indian authorities have expressed concerns regarding possible damage to the roads and bridges in Meghalaya, likely to be worsened by the heavy trucks carrying boulders from Bhutan. We have already requested the Bhutanese side to consider temporary alternatives such as exporting these boulders to Assam, where there is a ready market demand for this commodity and also to consider using a different point of exit/entry via Changrabandha, Phulbari, or Dhubri for trade with Bangladesh.

The GoI had been providing several scholarships recently including in prestigious Indian universities. Has the pandemic affected the scholarship or students on scholarship in India? What new areas of studies can Bhutanese expect in the coming years?

GoI offers a diverse mix of scholarships to Bhutanese students who aspire to join top-notch Indian educational institutions. These include the prestigious Nehru Wangchuck Scholarship, the new India-Bhutan Friendship Scholarship, the Ambassador’s Scholarship, the undergraduate scholarships, the Nalanda University Scholarship, the ICCR Engineering Scholarships, the SAARC Scholarships and the AYUSH Scholarships.  The pandemic has not impacted the scholarships, rather these have increased.

Our newest scholarships are two full tuition-waiver scholarships from the Rashtriya Raksha University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat.  We are pleased to share that two Bhutanese students have recently joined Bachelor’s degree programmes in Defence & Strategic Studies at the Rashtriya Raksha University.

From the July 2021academic session, two new full-ride scholarships have also been offered by the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar for Bhutanese students accepted into M.Tech/Ph.D programmes in Engineering. This makes it a total of 7 IITs which will now host Bhutanese students: IITs Kanpur, Delhi, Bombay, Roorkee, Tirupati, Guwahati and now Gandhinagar.  Our focus  on STEM education is aligned with His Majesty’s vision and the priorities of the government.

Going forward, it will be our endeavour to facilitate the admission of Bhutanese students into new and emerging areas of relevance, in particular at our IITs and other Tech Institutes.  Just as four Bhutanese space engineers are at ISRO pursuing training in satellite technology, we would like to see Bhutanese students take up graduate and doctoral studies in Machine Learning, 5G, the Internet of Things, Quantum Computing and other latest technologies. I would encourage all final year engineering students and recent Tech Graduates to apply for admission to the M Tech and PhD programmes at IIT Kanpur and IIT Gandhinagar for the academic year 2021-22, through the Embassy of India.

We greatly look forward to welcoming Bhutanese students to study in India, as our relationship accelerates and grows.