On similar grounds of environment pollution inter alia, Bhutan has not yet concurred with the proposed BBIN (Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal) Motor Vehicles Agreement, not wanting additional vehicular pollution, writes Amb Sarvajit Chakravarty (retd) for South Asia Monitor
Bhutan has recently opened its borders to travellers again after successfully overcoming the Covid pandemic. However, this time, the per diem tourism fee, in addition to accommodation and other costs of travel to the Kingdom, has been extended, for the first time, to cover Indian travellers also who have traditionally enjoyed a passport and visa free access to the Himalayan state on a mutual basis.
This has raised some concerns among tour operators and tourists, some of whom may baulk at incurring the small extra expense. Voices in India have been raised demanding the India should impose reciprocal conditions on travellers from Bhutan. This will surely amount to shooting ourselves in the foot or any higher part of the body politic of India that the reader may prefer to name.
There are many reasons and mutual interests which require that India take this small step in its stride. Bhutan's primary sources of income are exports of goods, services and electricity to India, apart from tourism. Except electricity sales, all the others have suffered severely during the Covid pandemic while increasing Bhutan's national expenditure. Bhutan is not only a pristine tiny country of limited population and resources, but wishes to keep its fragile Himalayan environment as natural, green and pollution-free as possible.
Like Singapore banned chewing gum, Bhutan has successfully banned smoking and the use of tobacco as it not only pollutes the environment but wastes foreign exchange and increases healthcare costs, all of which can be avoided by this means to some extent. On similar grounds of environment pollution inter alia, Bhutan has not yet concurred with the proposed BBIN (Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal) Motor Vehicles Agreement, not wanting additional vehicular pollution. For the same reason, Bhutan wishes to encourage sustainable eco-tourism and maintain its unique social integrity and cultural identity.
India has always been Bhutan's closest friend, ally and cultural inspiration. Hence Indian sensitivity to Bhutan's aspirations and support to development will only enhance our camaraderie, which has always stood us in very good stead. If Bhutan does not wish to have large-scale tourist inflows, India need have no issues with that.
Our policy towards, incoming travellers from Bhutan not only must remain unchanged, but we should enhance Bhutan's capacity develop alternative sources of income by helping to maximise its energy potential and remain the worl's most environment friendly country.
India can do this easily by encouraging the replacement of petroleum-based transport and industry by electric and hybrid CNG/electric vehicles and converting any fossil-fuel based activities in Bhutan to green electricity operated ones. India should help Bhutan to develop the necessary electric vehicle charging infrastructure across all the roadways of the country. Development of modern vehicle parking points at border crossings between India and Bhutan will enable transshipment from petroleum-powered vehicle from India, Bangladesh and Nepal through customs stations into CNG-EV hybrid vehicles owned and operated by Bhutan.
Gradually, transportation in the entire Himalayan region as well as other mountain zones in the BBIN can become based on these non-polluting hybrid vehicles, very significantly reducing air pollution and reducing the warming of these areas to reduce snowmelt rates.
Unless we take this step, the rapid melt and disappearance of their snows and glaciers will increase aridity, change monsoon rainfall patterns and eventually turn our great rivers into seasonal streams, parching the entire subcontinent and reducing agricultural and other water dependent output, including power generation.
The Indian hospitality sector can also improve and diversify Bhutan's hospitality services so that higher realization per traveller offsets the reduction in numbers. Tourist-based service quality will improve and the travel experience will be enhanced not only in Bhutan but hinterland areas in India, Bangladesh and Nepal as travellers demand higher quality of service, facilities and hygiene. The issue of multi-entry BBIN tourist e-visas will surely result in increasing the number of tourists and the quality of service rendered to them. To achieve this, the BBIN countries must work out the modalities of issuing common visas.
The BBIN zone must integrate its economy to the maximum extent possible to ensure its continuing growth and prosperity. Green power generation by Bhutan and Nepal should augment the BBIN availability of electricity to power the new knowledge and ICT-driven economy into which the world is now being transformed. Transport integration will enable the integration of logistics networks from Amritsar to Da Nang as BBIN, BIMSTEC and ASEAN come together to realize their common goal of increased prosperity and better quality of life. That will not make us worry about small charges our tiny, resource-deficit allies may make upon Indians for their own well-being.
As Rabindranath Tagore wrote, "O my soul, awaken gently to the holy land of India," which absorbed "Saka and Hun hordes, Pathans and Mughals into the Indians of this one great country. In India we raise both arms in worship of the divinity of man."
Let us Indians, 93 percent of whom are migrants to this great subcontinent, remain inclusive and welcoming and not be petty or carping about our good neighbours with whom we share our faiths, food and future.
(The author is a retired Indian ambassador. Views are personal)