Economic, hydropower cooperation to be key focus areas of PM's Bhutan visit

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New Delhi, May 14 : Enhancing economic and hydropower cooperation between India and Bhutan will be the key focus areas of the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh's two-day visit to Bhutan from Friday.

Briefing the media about the visit, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said the visit, the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 15 years, would focus on forging a more diversified and contemporary economic and energy partnership in tune with emerging realities.

He said the visit of the Prime Minister to Bhutan would be part of the larger mission of diversifying the country's energy basket as Bhutan has the potential to produce 30,000 mega watts of hydropower.

According to a study, even if half of this potential is tapped, it could go a long way in easing North India's chronic power shortages.

Menon said that during the visit the Prime Minister would lay the foundation stone of the 1,020-megawatt Tala Hydropower Project at Chukha Dzongkhag in western Bhutan, said to be the largest joint venture between India and Bhutan, and a symbol of their collaboration in power generation.

Talks between the Indian and Bhutanese delegations would also focus on implementing the 1095-megawatt Punatsangchu I Hydroelectric Project, besides taking negotiations on detailed project reports (DPRs) for Punatsangchu-II and Mangdechu Hydroelectric Projects forward with the intention of completing it within Bhutan's Ninth Five-Year Plan, Menon said.

He said that hydroelectric power cooperation has been an important element of Indo-Bhutan relations, as both countries have signed bilateral agreements to the effect that all surplus power from the three commissioned hydroelectric projects in Bhutan will be sold to India.

So far, he said, that India has tapped 4000 megawatt of electricity, and hoped to tap 5000 megawatt of electricity by 2020.

In this regard, it maybe recalled that in July 2006, an Agreement on Cooperation in the field of hydroelectricity was signed between the two governments wherein India agreed to import 5000 megawatt of electricity from Bhutan by 2020. In July 2007, India and Bhutan signed a pact to implement the Punatsangchu and Mangdechu hydropower projects.

The visit will also provide the Prime Minister with an insight into the democratic transformation of Bhutan, a nation of over 600,000 people that once prided itself on its isolation, measuring its wealth in terms of gross domestic happiness.

Menon said the visit would also be used to celebrate a century of the Wangchuk Dynasty, and added that the transition in Bhutan should be termed as remarkable, as half a century ago, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spent a month travelling to Bhutan by horse and yak, and now the current Prime Minister was landing in Paro in an aircraft, a sign of progress in terms of connectivity, economic integration, contacts at the high level, mutual trust and understanding.

The Foreign Secretary said that the revised Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of February 2007, which was signed during the visit of the present King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk to Delhi when he was his country's Crown Prince, reflected the desire of the two countries to not only enhance economic cooperation, but also served as an excellent identity of views developed over the years.

The new treaty, he said, also reaffirms the two countries desire to maintain the safety and security of their shared 700-kilometre-long open border.

Celebrating Bhutan's march towards "constitutional, democratic monarchy" as it held its first-ever poll on Monday, India, Menon said is committed to providing all possible assistance to Bhutan during its period of transition".

He said that India has actively assisted the democratic transition of Bhutan by training poll officials and setting up Bhutan's Election Commission, as well as providing over two million dollars in assistance, including electronic voting machines.

Replying to a question, Foreign Secretary Menon said that no agreements would be signed during the visit.

To another question related to the eviction of Indian insurgents from Bhutan, Menon said: "We continue to work closely to neutralise insurgent activity on India's borders with Bhutan."

As far as assistance for Bhutan's Tenth Five-Year Plan was concerned, Menon said substantial Indian assistance was in the offing.

Informed sources said that India is expected to contribute about Rs.4, 500 crores to the new plan, as opposed to the Rs.2610.14 crores it contributed to the Ninth Five-Year-Plan (2002-2008).

As far as the program of the Prime Minister was concerned, the Foreign Secretary said Dr. Singh would land in Paro on the morning of the 16th and would go to Bhutanese capital Thimphu. He would call on King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and meet with Prime Minister Lyonpo Jigme Thinley. The two delegations would also meet after a one-to-one meeting between the two leaders.

On Saturday (May 17), the Prime Minister would address a joint session of the Bhutanese Parliament, which comprises of a National Assembly of 47 to 55 members and the National Council, which comprises of 25 members, five of whom are nominated by the King.

This would be followed with him laying the foundation stone of the Tala Hydroelectric Project and lunch with the previous King Jigme Singye Wangchuk.

The Prime Minister would then leave Bhutan for Bagdogra on the 17th afternoon, where he would address a press conference before embarking for New Delhi. He would reach the Indian capital by 6.35 p.m. By Ashok Dixit

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