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New Delhi: India will provide Rs.10,000 crore as financial support to Bhutan over the next five years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Friday as the two sides signed six agreements to bolster cooperation in areas ranging from energy to space.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi met his Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay in Bhutan on Friday (Twitter/@narendramodi)

Modi spoke about the aid at a ceremony where he was awarded the Order of Druk Gyalpo, Bhutan’s highest honour, after talks with his Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay aimed at shoring up bilateral ties against the backdrop of China’s efforts to settle a border dispute with the Himalayan nation and to forge diplomatic relations.

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Modi travelled to Bhutan a day after his visit was postponed because of bad weather at the airport at Paro. It is rare for Indian premiers to travel after dates for the general election have been announced, and the trip emphasises the importance New Delhi attaches to its relationship with Thimphu.

Referring to Bhutan’s target of becoming a high-income country by 2034, Modi told a gathering at Tendrelthang festival ground that India will stand with Bhutan at every step and take bilateral cooperation to new heights in the next five years.

“We will work on new possibilities in connectivity, infrastructure, trade and the energy sector between India and Bhutan,” he said, speaking in Hindi after King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck presented the award to him at a ceremony attended by ministers, diplomats, military officials and school children. Modi is the first foreign leader to be given this award.

“As always, there will be our full cooperation and support for the 13th five-year plan of the government of Bhutan. I would like to announce to my brothers and sisters of Bhutan that the government of India will provide support of 10,000 crore in this direction in the next five years,” he said.

Indian support forms the mainstay of funding for Bhutan’s five-year plans and New Delhi provided Rs.5,000 crore for the 12th plan during 2018-2023. Bhutan was allocated the largest share of the external aid portfolio in India’s budget for 2024-25, with an outlay of Rs.2,068 crore.

Modi also spoke of plans for building a new airport to improve air connectivity and new rail links between Banarhat (West Bengal) and Samtse (Bhutan) and Kokrajhar (Assam) and Gelephu (Bhutan). He said waterways will be linked through the Brahmaputra River, and integrated checkposts will be built to strengthen trade infrastructure.

Accepting the award on behalf of 1.4 billion Indians, Modi said: “The people of Bhutan believe that India is their family. Our relationship and our friendship is unbreakable. Our mutual cooperation is unwavering, and the most important thing is that our trust is also unwavering.”

He pointed to the shared common heritage of Buddhism and said Bhutan has given the world a “visionary framework” in the shape of its policy of “Gross National Happiness”.

India will support the Bhutan king’s visionary project at Gelephu, Modi said, referring to plans to create a regional economic hub and a carbon-neutral city at a town bordering India’s Assam state.

India and Bhutan, Modi said, are also working on many futuristic projects, such as building hydropower projects whose electricity is exported to India, and the partnership has been extended to space after Bhutanese scientists launched the India-Bhutan satellite in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

King Wangchuck said the neighbourhood is of vital importance for Bhutan, and Bhutan-India ties are a unique and time-tested partnership. “It brings us great joy to see India succeed in every field, to see her global stature grow, and her people achieve greater prosperity. Bhutan also stands to benefit when India succeeds, we feel reassured about the future of our neighbourhood,” he said.

Tobgay, who made India the destination for his first foreign visit after assuming office in January, personally welcomed Modi with an embrace on his arrival at Paro and the Indian premier was presented with a guard of honour.

Modi and Tobgay held talks during a working lunch in the capital Thimphu on various aspects of the multi-faceted bilateral ties. They forged an understanding to enhance cooperation in areas such as renewable energy, agriculture, environment and forestry, youth exchanges and tourism, according to a readout from the external affairs ministry.

Ahead of the meeting, the two leaders witnessed the exchange of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) and agreements in areas such as energy, digital connectivity and space.

Under an MoU on petroleum, oil, lubricants and related products, India will facilitate the supply of these items to Bhutan through agreed border points. An agreement on a Joint Plan of Action on Space Cooperation provides a roadmap for collaboration through exchange programmes and training. In November 2022, an Indian rocket carried a satellite jointly developed by India and Bhutan into space.

The two sides also agreed on the text of an MoU for establishing the Kokrajhar-Gelephu and Banarhat-Samtse rail links and the modalities for their implementation.

Another agreement for recognising controls exercised by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the Bhutan Food and Drug Authority (BFDA) will facilitate bilateral trade by reducing compliance costs. This MoU will lead to the acceptance of BFDA’s export inspection certificates by FSSAI for exports to India.

Under an MoU for cooperation in energy conservation, India will assist Bhutan in enhancing energy efficiency in households by promoting the Bureau of Energy Efficiency’s star labelling programme. It also covers the formulation of building codes and creating a pool of energy professionals in Bhutan.

An MoU on reference standards, pharmacopoeia, vigilance and testing of medicinal products will help develop cooperation and information exchanges for regulating medicines in line with the laws and regulations of each country. This MoU will allow the acceptance of Indian Pharmacopoeia by Bhutan as a book of standards for medicines and supply of generic medicines at affordable prices.

The two sides also signed an MoU on cooperation in sports and youth affairs and renewed another MoU for a peering arrangement between the National Knowledge Network of India and the Druk Research and Education Network of Bhutan.

Following the talks between the two premiers, Bhutan’s king conferred the Order of Druk Gyalpo on Modi. The award was announced earlier on December 17, 2021, for Modi’s efforts to strengthen India-Bhutan ties and for New Delhi’s provision of 500,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines.

The citation referred to Modi as “an outstanding embodiment of national, regional, and global leadership”. It added that, under him, India has become the fastest-growing economy and will be the third-largest economy by 2030. Describing him as a “figure of destiny”, it said his commitment to safeguarding the environment and investing in renewable energy makes India’s progress well-rounded.

India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy has strengthened South Asia and paved the way for collective progress, the citation said. “Prime Minister Modi is a firm supporter of Bhutan’s national vision to achieve self-reliance and become a developed nation,” it added.

Modi’s visit comes against the backdrop of reports that Bhutan and China are moving towards a pact to settle their disputed boundary, a development with security ramifications for crucial stretches of the India-Bhutan border such as the Doklam plateau, the scene of a 73-day standoff with Chinese troops in 2017.

The Indian side has been keeping a close watch on efforts by Bhutan and China to resolve their border dispute. Under the leadership of Tobgay’s predecessor Lotay Tshering, Bhutan held the 25th round of boundary talks with China in Beijing late last year and signed an agreement for a joint technical team to work on demarcating the boundary.

Modi also held separate meetings with King Wangchuck and the previous king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Modi and the king expressed satisfaction at the close and unique India-Bhutan friendship and reviewed bilateral cooperation. “Recalling that Bharat for Bhutan and Bhutan for Bharat was an abiding reality, the two leaders discussed ways to further the transformative partnership,” an Indian statement said.

They also discussed progress in connectivity initiatives and investment proposals, including in the context of the Gelephu Mindfulness City project.

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