The headline news of 20th March,2015 which coincidentally also happened to be the International Happiness Day was far from being happy for Bhutan. The Government of Bhutan, " has deferred the constructions of the 68.3 kms. Nganglam to Dewathang highway ( NDH ) indefinitely, and aborted the 98 kms. Lhamoizingkha to Sarbang highway ". The old name for Lhamoizingkha is Kalikhola the most isolated Dungkhag in Southern Bhutan. The reason cited is, " Security ". The Big Question is, " Whose Security and how real ? "
The total length of the largely ADB soft loan funded nationally vital Southern Highway is 166.3kms which is the same length and of importance as the existing Thimphu to Phuentsholing Highway. For so many past years, Bhutan has been yearning like a desert for water for such a southern highway life line. . And this national dream goal had become a reality within this ongoing 11th 5 Year Plan. And then out of blue, lightening struck down the national vision of independent southern Bhutan road connectivity. The Cabinet of Bhutan showed its red face once again and this time the victim is national socio - economic and security priority, the Southern Bhutan Highway.
A national highway in Southern Bhutan from Samtse to Diafam would enhance the security of South Bhutan and bring about far greater socio-economic prosperity to the whole nation. For too long the communication within Bhutan had suffered because travel between different Dzongkhags in South Bhutan was possible only through the Indian lateral highway running through the Indian States of West Bengal and Assam. Whenever a strike occurred in West Bengal or Assam, Bhutan was adversely affected. Things stood still on the Bhutan side of the international border.
The Government's stated reason for shelving the construction of the Southern Highway was that now the Cabinet had to to be, "mindful of Externally Funded Project Component". What a Reason ! Almost every development project in Bhutan has been externally funded for the last 55 years of Bhutan's modern era since 1960. Only the Southern Highway Project is too sensitive security wise to be funded by ADB? Why and How ? If it was so, how come until 2nd of March,2015, the whole national political hierarchy was for the construction of the the Southern Highway. Till then the Bhutanese Governments were for the interest of the overall development and Security of the whole of Bhutan and in particular the citizens and Dzongkhags of South Bhutan.
On 1st March, 2015, the Secretary of External Affairs of India came marching into Bhutan and met the Bhutanese political hierarchy and on 2nd March,2015, the very next day of his visit, the Cabinet of Bhutanese Government issues orders to cancel the Southern Highway Projects.
The Ministry of Works and Human Settlement had to return the bidding documents and bid securities of construction firms who had participated in the Tender for the highway construction. The Tender evaluation had been completed. Could a Foreign Construction firm Japanese or Chinese have qualified for the highway construction project? It should have been possible for Bhutan to cite the sensitive northern border issue of India and award the contract for the highway project to an Indian construction firm. In fact I thought from the onset, it was decided that it would be solely a Bhutanese venture in so far as the actual construction was concerned to promote national capacity of private construction firms in Bhutan. So it cannot be the issue of specific contractor for cancelling the highway project.
It had to do with India's anathema against Bhutan securing an independent communication network of road transportation within her southern border regions from extreme West to end of Eastern border in the South. A few months back, the unfortunate victim of this Cabinet was the secondary national highway of the Southern Bhutan centred in between Dagana Dzongkhag and Lhamoizingkha Dungkhag.
The highway and the secondary highway in the South would have put an end to infiltrations from Indian side. These highways would free Bhutan from a national hostage situation each time there is a strike in the Indian States of Assam and West Bengal. It would finally make possible for Bhutanese to travel safely and conveniently to different parts of their nation without using the security risk Indian lateral route. The highways would greatly enhance the moveability of Bhutanese Government Agencies during any crisis in South Bhutan.
The Southern Belt is the weakest link in sovereignty of the Bhutanese nation. Since 1950s, there have been two brinkmanship Uprisings in Southern Bhutan and one near catastrophic occupation by supposed to be various insurgent groups all well armed and trained forces of Indian origin. The Southern Highway is not just a national connectivity roadway. It is of strategic importance to national sovereign stability and unity. It benefits directly not just Lhotsampas but all other Eastern and Western Bhutanese who have been resettled in the 4 regions along the southern belt. How could a sovereign nation accept the surrender of its vital national interest by a Ruling Political Party who seems obligated to India? India's concern is imaginary whilst Bhutan's needs are real and urgent.
The Amochu Hydro Project has been shelved and the Samtse Phuentsholing road construction has slowed to a snail pace and the Dagana Lhamoizingkha secondary highway construction has been sabotaged. And finally now the construction of the most vital southern Highway has been grounded to a full stop.
The Ministry of Works and Human Settlement is the parent Agency for national road connectivity in the Kingdom that is devoid of any railways or water transport facilities and air transport almost nil within the Country, The Minister of this Ministry has been reduced to declaring that fair weather ( seasonal ) farm road is adequate substitute for the national lifeline that southern highway represents. It cannot be a genuine view of a first woman civil engineer of Bhutan. At her all important Cabinet berth , she had to be all geared up to make a positive difference to national development. But today the first woman civil engineer heading the largest development Ministry of Bhutan is mainly engaged in preventing or upsetting national development plans. A Minister needs no sympathy especially from a non entity citizen but I pity the professional engineer who made it to the pinnacle of engineering profession only to use her official powers to obstruct major national development projects.
The present Government began its 1st day of governance by lining up to receive the Indian Ambassador. By design or coincidence this incident made it appear that the Cabinet had shadow master. Maybe it was a bad Omen that foretold of grave days ahead. Bhutanese people by and large may not be too particular whether the power centre is with the the Palace or the Cabinet but gradually it seems to be shifting away from Bhutanese Leaders. Today I wonder how many of the elected 67 MPs of Bhutanese Parliament had not visited the Embassy of India in Thimphu. I do not mean to pay homage but for any assorted purposes or reasons.
It is the official responsibility of any foreign Embassy in any Country to protect and promote the national interests of the nation which it represents. Therefore it is understandable that Ambassadors of India to Bhutan of past or present era as well as visiting dignatories will do utmost to enhance Indian interest in Bhutan. By the same token, it is the sworn responsibility and duty of all Bhutanese national leaders to protect and enhance national interest of Bhutan and the Bhutanese people. The oath of national allegiance and duty is meaningful if only upheld. The mere words confirming the willingness to offer one's own blood to Pel Yeshey Goenpo in defence of Tsawa Sum does not amount to much if deed and intent are missing.
Today we surrender South Bhutan to the social,economic and military stranglehold of India. Tomorrow what happens to North Bhutan ? We are yet to conclude the northern boundary talks with China. How would China interpret the political changes in Southern Bhutan? India may not favour South Bhutan Highway that stretches from Sibsoo in Samtse Dzongkha to Diafam in SamdrupJongkhar Dzongkhag. The proposed highway could become a part of South Asia or even Asian Highway. It is possible that India would want to preserve its dominant influence over Bhutan and therefore does not kindly look upon this South Asia Economic Venture of which the Southern Highway is part of. Is it possible that Indian Defence Forces suffers from a phobia of China to the extent of fearing that the proposed South Bhutan Highway could become the the Chinese Invasion route to North Eastern States of India? How could India a nation of over a billion people with a rapidly growing economic and political world power ever need to fear an invasion from China or any other Country? Why bully Bhutan to such a low degree of submission. I just wonder what unkind fate has doomed Bhutan to sacrifice the foundation of national umbilical cord the highway upon the alter of unwarranted security fear of India.
Bhutan and Appeasement:
The Appeasement Policy was pursued to the hilt by the Prime Minister Clement Attlee of Britain with Germany before 2nd World War. It failed miserably. Closer to home the Chogyel of Sikkim conceded almost everything of Sikkim to India in faithful pursuit of Appeasement Policy and in the end he got thrown out and Sikkim was annexed by India. On the other hand the King of Nepal defied India of Rajiv Gandhi. In later years, the King and whole of his immediate royal family members including the Crown Prince got killed in a mysterious palace plot. However, the national character of defiance that the Monarch projected did not die with the royal family. It survives today intact along with its sovereignty. A Sikkimese Khazi Lhendup was the 1st Chief Minister of annexed Sikkim. Later he was expelled from the Indian State of Sikkim to spend long agonising years in Kalimpong under the State of West Bengal. So personally it does not pay to betray one's own Country. And the Policy of Appeasement is generally an assured failure. And then policy of defiance has grave personal and national risk. The options before the leaders of Kingdom of Bhutan is not only limited but also very unattractive. Meanwhile the tiny East Himalayan Kingdom jammed between the giant neighbours: China in the north and India in the South is being pushed towards a even more tight corner.
May Pelden Drukpai ChhoeChangs open a way forward to prevent the little dragon kingdom from being strangled to suffocation.