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Looking at the new frontiers of Bhutan-India friendship

Phuentsholing and Jaigoan

Phuentsholing, the land of prosperity, has always fascinated me. In my childhood days, it was a dream destination during winter vacations with my late grandfather. Like many Bhutanese, I have seen and experienced the city through the eyes and excitement of a child and, now as a citizen and student, from the point of view of Bhutan-India Friendship. As much as I cherish Phuentsholing, I enjoy the busy city of Jaigaon.

In a bigger perspective, it is a matter of historical pride that these two cities provided the setting for the launching of Bhutan’s first five-year plan in 1961. Cross border trade and people-to-people contact is vibrant. If urbanization brought business and opportunities to entrepreneurs, it also came with the socioeconomic realities beyond municipal boundaries. Incidents of fronting, pollution, sewage and water supply system, housing shortage, and squatter settlements leave me with more questions than answers. But my hopes are reignited whenever our countries celebrate momentous occassions together, like the Golden Jubilee celebration of Bhutan-India friendship and the present visit by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi.

 

Inspiring  leadership and common  aspirations

Architecture and planning taught me to free my imaginations beyond the budget in the treasury, bureaucratic red tape and diplomacy. Recollecting the address to the Bhutanese Parliament in his first visit as the prime minister in 2014, Shri Narendra Modi shared that India and Bhutan could together form a holistic approach to tourism, sports and scholarships to reinforce Bharat to Bhutan (B2B) partnership. His Majesty The King while addressing the young graduates at the RIM convocation recently advised us to “Climb higher on the shoulders of past achievements. Your task is not to fill the old shoes or to follow a well-trodden path but to forge a new road leading to a brighter future.” Such words of wisdom and farsightedness give me confidence to share my imaginations for the future.

The emergence of a progressive India under the leadership of PM Modi and nurturing of democracy in Bhutan under successive governments provide unlimited opportunities for our region. If these dreams are to come true, Indo-Bhutan relations need to move beyond hydropower. Strategic moves and appropriate policy actions are needed for an in-depth study of the present economic, social and infrastructural problems in border towns like Phuentsholing and Jaigaon along with the establishment of a cross border planning strategy. Such a strategy will complement the aspirations expressed by India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Keshav Gokhale that our relationship must transcends politics and the governments and aim to bring positive change for the region 50 years down the line.

 

Cross Border  Planning Strategy

Cross Border Planning Strategy is a strategy employed for coordinated solutions for those areas falling between two or more countries who share a common political and security interest. It began in 1958 on the Dutch-German border for co-operation among border municipalities, districts or regions. The focus of CBP is to enhance economic and social cohesion, conservation of natural resources and cultural heritage and a more balanced competitiveness of the cities. Such interventions create conducive environment to strengthen strategic, social and cultural ties between different nations.

Bhutan, the land of happiness, is blessed with natural resources to complement each other.  Today, this area of unmatched beauty, diversity and climate for growth is unable to fulfill its potential due to our failure to patrol our borders or repair our basic public facilities, resulting in our inability to build new bridges for strategic prosperity. Concepts like the Samdrupjongkhar Initiative (SJI) and the Foothills Festival must be nurtured beyond the boundaries with good infrastructure and facilities. Organic Sikkim and Happiness Bhutan must complement and compete with each other in sustainable mountain development. Institutions like IIT Guwahati and JNEC in Dewathang and Uttar Banga Krishi Vishwavidyalaya in North Bengal and the College of Natural Resources must capture such visions deeper collaboration.

 

New frontiers of friendship

The setting of the Indo-Bhutan border areas with shared geography, economic potentials and common problems is a perfect platform to build new areas of economically vibrant friendship and social well-being. Phuentsholing-Jaigaon, Gelephu-Dhadgari, Samdrupjongkhar-Mela Bazaar, Sipsu Nagarkatta, Daifam-Bhairab Kunda are areas waiting for vision, leadership and investment to take our friendship to greater heights. These areas could be the centres of organic agriculture, infrastructure, education, tourism, recreation, and information and, above all, as symbols of our close friendship. These initiatives have the potential to defeat insurgency, tackle unemployment, fronting and smuggling, among others. These people-centric projects should be a tribute to the legacy of Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuk and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the architects of the unique and forward-looking Bhutan-India friendship.

 

Contributed by Dhrubaraj Sharma

1st year PhD student

School of Design

Queensland University of Technology, Australia

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