“India will stand by our close friend and neighbour, Bhutan.”

Indian Ambassador to Bhutan, Ruchira Kamboj talks to Kuensel on the Bhutan-India collaboration in the wake of Covid-19pandemic.

The Prime Minister of India called Lyonchhen on the telephone last week. Can you brief us about this?

Indeed. Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have recently had an excellent, warm tele-conversation, reflective of the special and privileged relations between our two countries. Prime Minister Modi expressed his admiration for the personal touch and wisdom of His Majesty The King of Bhutan and Lyonchhen, both of whom have led from the front to limit the spread of infection within Bhutan. The Prime Ministers also discussed the regional situation, and updated each other on the steps being taken by their respective governments to curb the effects of the pandemic. Prime Minister Modi thanked Lyonchhen for Bhutan’s contribution to the SAARC Covid-19 Emergency Fund and both leaders also expressed satisfaction at the progress made in implementing the special arrangements agreed on 15 March between the leaders of the SAARC countries. Prime Minister Modi referred to the timeless and special nature of India-Bhutan ties, and assured Lyonchhen that India would ensure all possible support to Bhutan to minimize the health and economic impact of the pandemic.

 

How has India helped the Bhutanese students and nationals returning home over the last few weeks?

As you are aware, India has been in lockdown since 25 March, which has subsequently been extended till 3 May. Despite the restrictions, India has facilitated the maximum number of special Druk Air flights to ensure the return of Bhutanese students and nationals, ordinarily resident in India. 1,350 Bhutanese students from Chennai, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Mohali, Mumbai, Amritsar, Chandigarh and Delhi have been able to return to home as an outcome of these efforts. Several Bhutanese have also returned home by road through special arrangements made in coordination with State Governments. No doubt, this exercise has been possible only because of robust cooperation between the Ministry of External Affairs, India, the Royal Bhutan Embassy in New Delhi, and of course Druk Air.

 

India recently announced that essential medicines including Hydroxychoroquine would be supplied to neighbouring countries upon request. Will Bhutan receive some of these medicines as well?

Prime Minister Modi has emphasized that the fight against Covid-19 is not just one country’s, but also all of humanity’s. Our ancient Indian heritage sets out that the world is one family, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”.  He has repeatedly underscored the need to put human beings at the centre of our vision of global prosperity and cooperation, and to freely and openly share the benefits of medical research and development. The world is facing a common challenge and the key to success against Covid-19 is all about togetherness and resilience.

In this spirit, India has reached out to the global community – our neighbourhood, the extended neighbourhood as well as other countries – offering a helping hand to deliver medical supplies and assistance, whenever and wherever sought. In this vein, we have been honoured to hand over two consignments of medical supplies to Bhutan.

A third shipment containing essential medicines including Hydroxychloroquine is expected to be handed over to Bhutan next week.

 

Lyonchhen and Prime Minister Modi joined their counterparts in the SAARC Video Conference held on 15 March to launch a common front to combat Covid-19. Any follow-up action on the SAARC VC?

A number of follow-up actions have been taken by India pursuant to the SAARC Leaders’ Video Conference on 15 March. The SAARC Covid-19 Emergency Fund with India’s contribution of US$10 million now has a healthy corpus pledged by all SAARC member countries.

A dedicated COVID-19 website (http://www.covid19-sdmc.org) for use by all SAARC countries has been set up by the SAARC Disaster Management Centre, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, to disseminate reliable information, best practices and COVID-19 updates in the region.

SAARC health professionals at the level of Director General have also held a videoconference on 26 March to exchange best practices and lessons learned to combat Covid-19. Likewise, senior trade officials of SAARC countries have met virtually through a videoconference on 4 April to discuss the impact of travel restrictions and other issues affecting intra-regional trade.

Live Webinars have also been streamed by faculty members of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Raipur on Covid-19, under our e-ITEC Programme.  We were delighted that 36 Bhutanese health care officials participated in these webinars. Another series of five live webinars on “Managing  Covid-19: Experiences and Best Practices of India” will be hosted by the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh from 27 April onwards, where we also hope to see Bhutanese participation in good numbers.

 

Contact tracing, quarantine and testing have been the key elements of Bhutan’s policy response to Covid-19. What about India?

Ours has been a pro-active and graded response led by Prime Minister Modi. We started screening entry into India from mid-January itself, while also gradually increasing restrictions on travel. This step-by-step approach helped avoid panic. Meantime, we also increased our public awareness campaigns on TV, print and social media. We made special efforts to reach out to vulnerable groups. We also worked quickly to ramp-up capacity in our system including through training our medical staff across the country.

We enhanced diagnostic capabilities and we also developed protocols for each stage of managing the pandemic: for screening at entry points; contact tracing of suspected cases; quarantine and management of isolation facilities; and for discharge of cleared cases. We have also responded to the call of our people abroad, evacuating Indians from different countries. We have similarly helped some of your citizens, in keeping with the special nature of our bilateral relations.

On mitigation measures, recently the Aarogya Setu Mobile App, a futuristic tool for coronavirus tracking and contact tracing, has been launched by our Prime Minister. He has also emphasized the importance of Ayurveda and Yoga, both of which are timeless in the effort to boost immunity and enhance general health and wellbeing.

In terms of international partnerships, India has delivered medical supplies and assistance, whenever and wherever requested including to Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and of course Bhutan. Medical commodities have also been shipped to Myanmar, Seychelles and Mauritius in our extended neighbourhood, as well as to Italy, Iran and China at the height of the crisis in those countries. India has also not been shy of granting clearances for export of key pharma products to partners such as US, Brazil, Spain and Israel, and to other countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

These efforts have drawn praise from others. While the WHO has lauded India for announcing a series of measures to take care of communities directly affected by the ongoing lockdown imposed to fight the coronavirus, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has commended Prime Minister Modi’s leadership and the proactive measures taken by the Government of India to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak in India. Both His Majesty and Lyonchhen have graciously praised the bold and decisive steps taken by our Prime Minister to fight against Covid-19, we are indeed deeply touched by their kind gestures.

 

Some local manufacturers are reporting shortages of raw materials from India. How does GoI ensure the supply of raw materials?

I am pleased to share that the Government of India has made all efforts to ensure the uninterrupted movement of essential as well as non-essential commodities to Bhutan. Around 400 vehicles carrying essential goods and supplies enter Bhutan on a daily basis, a figure that is comparable to the number of vehicles prior to the lockdown in India. I will add that even as both our countries continue to face exceptional and extraordinary circumstances, India will stand by our close friend and neighbour, Bhutan.

 

Could you update us on the third internet gateway, which Bhutan is trying to get from Bangladesh.

We fully appreciate the significance of a third internet gateway for Bhutan, not least considering the increased usage of internet in Covid-19 times, with an emphasis on online education. The issue is under consideration of both sides and we hope to arrive at a mutually acceptable decision, within the earliest time frame.

 

How is GoI assisting Bhutan in its effort to prevent cross border infection?

The full machinery of the Government of India is geared towards ensuring strict compliance of the ongoing lockdown. Concerned State Governments are working in unison to fulfill the joint endeavour to contain the spread of Covid-19 and to ward off any possibilities of infection spreading across the border of our two countries.

 

Any updates on progress in the Punatsangchhu-I Hydroelectric project?

Let me assure you that efforts are underway and ongoing to find a holistic solution and way forward. In this vein, we hope to convene early meetings involving Bhutanese and Indian stakeholders via video-conferencing, which is the new normal!

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