By Devadeep Purohit
India has made all efforts to ensure the uninterrupted movement of essentials as well as non-essential commodities to Bhutan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured his counterpart Lotay Tshering that New Delhi will give all possible support to the Himalayan nation to minimise the health and economic impact of the pandemic.
In an interview to The Telegraph in mid-May, Indian ambassador to Bhutan, Ruchira Kamboj, explained in detail what Delhi is doing for its most trusted friend in the region.
The India-Bhutan friendship is getting reinforced in this time of lockdown. Will you please share details of how India is standing by its close and friendly neighbour?
Kamboj: India-Bhutan cooperation continues apace, in the times of Covid-19, encompassing myriad areas, including provision of essentials as well as our support to the re-prioritisation of projects envisaged by the Royal Government of Bhutan under the 12th Five Year Plan to bolster Bhutan’s Economic Stimulus Plan of Nu 30 billion.
The Government of India has made all efforts to ensure the uninterrupted movement of essentials as well as non-essential commodities to Bhutan. Around 500 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.
Despite the lockdown restrictions, India has also facilitated the maximum number of special Druk Air flights to ensure the return of Bhutanese students and nationals…. 1,739 (1,778 as of May 30) Bhutanese nationals from Calcutta, Chennai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Mohali, Mumbai, Amritsar, Chandigarh and Delhi have been able to return to home territory as an outcome of these efforts.
We have assured Bhutan that India will stand in solidarity as it re-calibrates its development pathways in the wake of Covid-19.
India’s gestures have been lauded by His Majesty the King of Bhutan as well as the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Dr Lotay Tshering. It is indeed most gracious of Bhutan to have acknowledged this friendship between two special friends. Significantly, India’s efforts have also been lauded by the Bhutanese people, in particular our support in ensuring essential supplies to Bhutan during the lockdown, and the handing over of medical supplies, as would any good friend to another, in times of need.
Going forward, how is the Indian government planning to keep the supplies normal in Bhutan?
Going forward, this support will continue to be extended by the government of India. In his recent telephone conversation with the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Prime Minister Modi had referred to the timeless and special nature of India-Bhutan ties, and assured Lyonchhen that India would ensure all possible support to Bhutan for minimising the health and economic impact of the pandemic.
Bengal becomes key, because of geography, in the Indian government’s initiatives to keep life normal in Bhutan. Please do share details of the Delhi-Calcutta hand-holding to ensure supplies in Bhutan.
The ‘duars’ of north Bengal signify doorways. And indeed if I say that north Bengal is the gateway to Bhutan, few would disagree. The India-Bhutan border crossing at Jaigaon/Phuentsholing is the key entry point for not only both Indian and foreign tourists but also essential goods and commodities.
The Bengal government, the ministry of external affairs, the government of India and the Royal Government of Bhutan have worked tirelessly and in close coordination with one another to ensure that essential supplies move seamlessly from India to Bhutan. And here I must especially acknowledge the efforts of our colleagues in the Bengal government who have worked proactively in the cause of the special and privileged India-Bhutan relationship in these testing times. Indeed, their actions have strengthened the long-standing bonds of friendship between our countries….
India is extending help to several countries in this hour of crisis. But in case of Bhutan, the responsibility seems to be much more. Will you please explain the reasons?
Bhutan is a land-locked country and most of its essentials such as food, fuel and medicines emanate from India even in normal times. Hence, we would be failing in our duty if we did not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Bhutan and ensure that supply lines remain intact even in these challenging times. Supply of raw materials and basic resources needed by Bhutan from India are also important to ensure that its indigenous industries and factories do not close down.
Bhutan is virtually a Covid-free country. How did they achieve this feat?
Bhutan has had only 15 confirmed cases of Covid-19 (which has gone up to 43 on May 31), with no deaths so far. All the Covid-19 positive cases have been individuals who have travelled to Bhutan from abroad. Of the 15 Covid-19 cases, five (now six) persons have recovered.
So far, there has been no local or community transmission in the country. While there has been no lockdown in Bhutan, the country is in partial lockdown mode with all borders closed, all educational institutions indefinitely closed for now, work from home in many government and private offices, emphasis on physical distancing in public places and public transport and restrictions on public gatherings.
The health ministry of Bhutan has developed two apps — Druk Trace and Stay Home — to facilitate contact tracing in public places and public transport and to monitor/track people placed in quarantine.
Municipal officials and ‘Dessups’ (volunteers) are ensuring strict implementation of the restrictions and Covid-19 precautions imposed by the government across the country.
May I add that Bhutan has been hugely successful till date in containingCovid-19 through its emergency response, by a simultaneous closure of borders, a 21-day mandatory quarantine in designated facilities for all persons returning to Bhutan, a combination of proactive testing and tracing along with compulsory testing of all quarantined persons before discharge.
And needless to add, the leadership of His Majesty the King of Bhutan, who has led from the front, has been critical in shaping Bhutan’s Covid policy response. In fact, Bhutan’s containment model for Covid-19 could well be a model/exemplar for many others.
Tourism is a very important sector of the Bhutan economy. How is the country managing the loss of income from the tourism sector?
The Tourism Council of Bhutan has re-prioritised its flagship programme to engage those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, through a stimulus package. As per the council, the expected budget for the stimulus plan is Ngultrum 286 million. It is expected to benefit about 2,436 people in the tourism industry, who would be engaged under four different areas: infrastructure and project development, training and re-skilling, waste management and surveys and study projects in the tourism sector.
The benefits of the activities will contribute to the development of infrastructure, training, development of an eco-tourism master plan, assessment of trekking routes and creation of amenities at major tourist sites, leading to an overall enhanced experience for tourists as well as the development of the tourism sector which is based on the ‘High Value-Low Impact’ model.
Indian ambassador to Himalayan nation, Ruchira Kamboj, in an interview with The Telegraph