Q&A: Ambassador Gautam Bambawale is leaving Bhutan for Pakistan after being the Indian Ambassador to Bhutan for the past two years. He spoke to Kuensel’s Gyalsten K Dorji.
You are leaving Bhutan after being here for a little less than two years, which is a shorter time period than previous ambassadors. Did you have enough time to meet your goals? What were your major achievements?
The period I have spent in Bhutan has been packed with action. To describe just some of the important events during this period, I would like to mention the visit to Bhutan of the President of India, the January 2015 visit to India of the Prime Minister of Bhutan where he delivered a brilliant speech at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, the signing of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal Motor Vehicles Agreement at Thimphu on 15 June 2015, the visit to India of a delegation from Bhutan’s Parliament led jointly by the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Chairman of the National Council and the successful visit to Bhutan of the Chief Minister of West Bengal.
The main goal during my period here in Bhutan as India’s Ambassador was to leave India-Bhutan relations stronger and more consolidated than when I first arrived. I think I have achieved this objective. What is more important is that many people in Bhutan are of the same opinion.
What tasks remain to be continued by the next ambassador? How do the two countries continue to maintain and evolve this strong and close relationship?
The job of continuing to build on the strong friendship and partnership between India and Bhutan is an ongoing one, which needs to be worked at by people in both our countries. I have always believed that a friendship between nations needs to be continually tended to.
You leave Bhutan, one of India’s closest partners and ally, for Pakistan, a sensitive area of diplomacy for India. Is there anything you might take from your time in Bhutan?
I have learnt a lot from the very nature and approach to life of the Bhutanese people. I have learnt that it is very important to do your work quietly but steadily, remain levelheaded with your feet planted firmly on the ground. I have also learnt the virtue of patience from the people of Bhutan. I will be taking all these qualities with me from Bhutan to Pakistan.
The BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement, which the Parliament deferred prompted you to urge our parliamentarians to ratify it as soon as possible. This is perhaps the first time an ambassador has directly advised parliament here. Why do you feel that Bhutan should be a part of the BBIN MVA when the majority of our trade is with India?
The BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement represents a very important concrete and practical step towards sub-regional integration. I believe that this is important for all the four countries involved since all the evidence points to the fact that such regional economic integration benefits all countries involved. Smaller countries also benefit proportionately more than larger countries through such integration. Therefore, the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement is good for Bhutan and it is also good for India, Bangladesh and Nepal. It is a win-win situation.
Some in the tourism sector feel that regional tourists should be accompanied by guides as well. Do you think this is the way forward? And Do you think Bhutan should do away with the tariff?
Tourism is a very important sector of Bhutan’s economy. Many people earn their livelihood from this sector. While it is for the Bhutanese people to decide themselves what is the best tourism policy to adopt and follow, I would like to point out that regional tourists increasingly are willing to visit Bhutan and pay for good amenities in terms of hotel accommodation, tourist guides and good transportation. Rising incomes of regional tourists must be factored into your decisions. I agree that Bhutan must leverage growing regional tourism for its own benefit.
One of the major events during your tenure was relocating the Air Force Element camp at Paro airport. What role did you play in this compromise and what advice would you have for your successors?
With regard to the relocation of the Air Force Element Camp at Paro airport, it was important to realize that this was not merely a matter of Civil Aviation but it also impinged on the security of India and Bhutan that is common and indivisible. When viewed from this perspective, it became very easy for our two governments to sort out the issue of relocating the Air Force Element Camp in a mutually acceptable manner.
What is your stand on the debate on the pursuit of hydropower projects in Bhutan, e.g. the Chamkharchhu debate?
I have repeatedly stated that it is entirely up to the people of Bhutan to decide how much hydropower Bhutan should generate. If the people of Bhutan decide that they would like to set up a few more hydropower projects, India would be happy and willing to assist in establishing such projects on a self-sustaining basis. It must also be kept in mind that hydropower is clean power which contributes to reducing the carbon footprint in the world. India-Bhutan cooperation in hydropower benefits both our countries. It is a two-way street.
India’s assistance to Bhutan for all the planned activities has been substantial. In which areas do you consider India’s assistance most important?
As I have said on many occasions earlier, India is happy to assist in Bhutan’s economic development because a strong, stable and peaceful Bhutan is in India’s interest. While Indian assistance to Bhutan does focus on the hard aspects of infrastructure development such as roads and buildings, the most important area of our cooperation with Bhutan is in developing the soft side of human resources. Therefore, India has very readily assisted in projects such as the School Reform Programme, professionalizing the Civil Service and in providing scholarships for Bhutanese students to study at the best educational institutions in India.
As you leave Bhutan, what are some of your fondest memories that you will take away? And will you ever return sir?
I have, on many occasions, told visitors to Bhutan that your country is beautiful not merely because of its verdant, green and clean environment but mainly because of the friendly nature and gentle behavior of the Bhutanese people. Therefore, my fondest memories are my interactions with thousands of Bhutanese people across the length and breadth of your country. In these past months, I have had the privilege of visiting and travelling to 17 out of 20 dzongkhags.
I look forward to continuing my association with my many friends in Bhutan. So through your newspaper I would like to say to the people of Bhutan “see you again, soon”!