India’s Ambassador to Bhutan Sudhakar Dalela talks to Kuensel Editor Tshering Palden about Indo-Bhutan ties, priority areas of cooperation, the Gelephu Mindfulness City project, and more…

As we transition to a new year, how would you look back at the year 2023 insofar as the growth in India-Bhutan ties is concerned?

2023 has been a landmark year for the India-Bhutan partnership, marked by an intense pace of high-level engagements, interactions between the business communities, and extensive people to people exchanges. It was an honour for us to welcome His Majesty to India on official visits in April and November last year. We had the historic first official visit of His Majesty to Assam and Maharashtra. These engagements have enabled us to discuss and register substantial progress on the full spectrum of our bilateral ties including energy cooperation, development partnership, cross-border connectivity, trade and investments linkages, skill development, technology collaboration, youth, cultural and sports linkages.

We look forward to executing a robust road map in the year 2024, which has at its heart the key priorities outlined by His Majesty in the National Day address at Changlimithang last month. We remain focused on enhancing connectivity, deepening economic and energy cooperation, skill development, and fostering people to people connections. India will be a steadfast partner of Bhutan as the latter pursues the goal of becoming a high-income nation by 2034. In the ever-changing global landscape, India-Bhutan ties of friendship remain a pillar of stability, and as enduring and unique as ever.


His Majesty has announced his vision for the Gelephu Mindfulness City project at the National Day celebrations 2023. What role India can play in the successful implementation of this important enterprise? 

During his recent visits to India, His Majesty shared his vision with the political leadership in India as well as Indian business leaders for creating new economic opportunities in Bhutan, particularly for the youth. His Majesty’s vision for Gelephu SAR has not only received the appreciation of our political leadership but has also generated considerable interest among the business community in India. For us, Gelephu project is a privileged opportunity to partner with our closest neighbour and friend in pursuit of greater economic prosperity and development in the region, and further deepening the India-Bhutan ties of friendship. India is firmly committed to working together with Bhutan as per the priorities of the Royal Government and in line with His Majesty’s vision. We will do so on the basis of mutual trust and understanding, which is the hallmark of our special ties.


His Majesty travelled to the bordering state of Assam on his first ever official visit in November 2023. The visit was called a “testament to ancient bonding between two nations”. Can you help us understand the relevance of this visit to Assam?

You would have seen images of the heart warming welcome extended to His Majesty by the people and the political leadership of Assam. I had the privilege of accompanying His Majesty on this special visit, and witnessing first hand the warmth and respect for His Majesty and the people of Bhutan in all the engagements in Assam.

His Majesty’s first official visit to Assam holds special significance. Today, Assam and indeed the entire North-East region of India is witnessing unprecedented economic growth and development. The Gelephu project area is in close proximity to Assam, and in this context, several important initiatives were announced during His Majesty’s visit to India, including the Kokrajhar-Gelephu rail-link, the establishment of an integrated check post at Gelephu-Dadgari, and an immigration check post for third country nationals at Samdrup Jongkhar-Darranga border point. His Majesty’s landmark visit to Assam has opened a new chapter in our bilateral cooperation, reflecting the long-standing close bonds of cooperation and kinship between the people of Assam and Bhutan.


What would be your key priorities in 2024 for the India-Bhutan relationship?

His Majesty’s visits to India last year have given us a concrete road map for numerous activities that we would like to focus our time and energy on. Apart from traditional areas of collaborative ties, we are working together in priority areas such as expanding technology collaboration including in space technology, strengthening cross-border connectivity, STEM education, skill development, youth and sports, and the creative sector. We are committed to stepping up support across sectors for Bhutan’s 13th Five Year Plan. We remain focused on boosting connectivity, enhancing economic, investment and people to people linkages. Further, we will strengthen our energy partnership and expand into renewable sectors. We are on a good trajectory to bring the 1020 MW Punatsangchhu-II project to its final stage this year. Going forward, we are committed to working with the new Government in Bhutan across sectors. The youth and people to people connect will continue to be the central pillar of growing India-Bhutan ties.


We have observed a lot of initiatives in the area of cross-border trade and connectivity infrastructure. How fast can we move on the connectivity agenda?

Under India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, there is a concerted effort to enhance connectivity in the region. I believe that the proposed rail link will facilitate trade and movement of people by providing Bhutan with connectivity to the vast Indian railway network. The Preliminary Engineering-cum-Traffic survey for connecting Kokrajhar in Assam to Gelephu in Bhutan has been completed, and the work on Final Location Survey of the proposed rail link as well as Banarhat-Samtse connectivity has already begun.

As far as trade infrastructure is concerned, I have visited several trade points along the India-Bhutan border: Jaigaon-Phuentsholing, Gelephu-Dadgiri, Samtse-Chamurchi, and most recently Samdrup Jongkhar-Darranga. My interactions during these visits with the stakeholders have convinced me that we need to focus on boosting connectivity and strengthening border trade infrastructure. This is essential to facilitate trade, promote tourism, and stimulate economic activity, thereby creating prosperity for the people and the region. My team and I are determined to make concrete progress on this front.


Energy has been a major area of cooperation between India & Bhutan. Besides hydro-power cooperation, what new initiatives are being undertaken to strengthen and diversify bilateral energy partnership?

Bhutan and India have enjoyed long-standing cooperation in the hydro-power sector. Together, we have successfully commissioned numerous projects, which have provided clean energy and aided in overall regional energy security. Building on the success of the Mangdechhu HEP, we look forward to commissioning the Punatsangchhu II HEP this year.

In recent times, our energy partnership has been evolving to include open and transparent power trading framework. Recently, the Government of India facilitated Basochhu HEP to trade its surplus electricity in the Day Ahead Market of the Indian Energy Exchange. Further, Indian regulations for cross-border trade in electricity have been updated to allow generating stations in neighbouring countries to sell electricity in Real Time Markets of Indian Energy Exchange. We are in discussion with the Royal Government regarding a financing framework for small hydro-power and transmission line projects. These are all important steps to expand our energy collaboration in an imaginative manner, which responds to the changing market conditions.

India has an ambitious target for renewable energy generation and we are undertaking global initiatives such as the establishment of International Solar Alliance, which Bhutan has also joined. Looking ahead, we will also be exploring new avenues of cooperation, particularly in renewable energy generation as well as green hydrogen.


The commitment to support Bhutan’s Five Year Plans is highlighted in the Joint Statements issued after His Majesty’s visits to India. Can you elaborate the trajectory of India-Bhutan development partnership?

 It is a matter of immense satisfaction that our development partnership in the context of Bhutan’s 12th Five Year Plan (2018-2023) has enabled the implementation of several flagship projects impacting people’s lives in a positive manner. I say this with conviction after visiting several of these projects across Dzongkhags and interacting with local communities. Despite COVID related challenges during the 12th FYP period, we completed several projects in sectors such as trade infrastructure, connectivity, education, health, digital connectivity, skill development, culture and sports.

For Bhutan’s 13th Five Year Plan, our discussion with the Royal Government of Bhutan on specific sectors and projects is ongoing. The Government of India is committed to stepping up its commitment for the 13th FYP in key sectors such as energy, skill development, digital connectivity, and trade infrastructure, while pursuing ongoing collaboration in sectors such as health, education, infrastructure development, agriculture, and cultural heritage.


Finally, Excellency, you have been in Bhutan for about a year and a half as the Ambassador of India to the Kingdom of Bhutan. Have you managed to travel within Bhutan? Could you share your impression of the country?

 I have been travelling within Bhutan; most recently, I visited five Dzongkhags in Eastern Bhutan. These visits have given me an opportunity to experience the magnificent Druk Yul – its rich cultural and spiritual heritage, its diversity, unmatched natural beauty, changing economic landscape, the resilience of its people, and the energy of the youth. Most importantly, it is the warmth and goodwill of the people of Bhutan for India and Bhutan-India partnership that has been overwhelming. Indeed, strong people-to-people ties and our spiritual connect are at the heart of enduring bilateral ties of friendship.

I am convinced that the journey ahead for our close collaborative ties is one of tremendous potential and opportunities. My Embassy team and I are fully committed to taking our extraordinary partnership to new heights, looking into the future.