Transcript of Media Briefing by Foreign Secretary on President’s ongoing visit to Bhutan (November 07, 2014)

Press Secretary to President (Venu Rajamony): It’s my pleasure to welcome Foreign Secretary Shrimati Sujatha Singh for this briefing. Foreign Secretary will first brief you on the latest developments then our Ambassador to Bhutan will add to it.

Foreign Secretary (Shrimati Sujatha Singh): As you remember, our Prime Minister had visited Bhutan as his first foreign destination after taking up office. And within a short span of few months, President is visiting Bhutan. It is a very clear indication, if any indication was needed at all, of the high importance attached by India to Bhutan – to Bhutan as a friend, to Bhutan as a neighbour, and to Bhutan as a partner in its efforts to transform the South Asian region and to lift the welfare of our peoples and the people of the larger region.

Bhutan has extended magnificent hospitality, warmth and kindness to both its guests. It was my privilege to have been here when the Prime Minister came, and it is my privilege to be here when the President is visiting. And I can tell you that the affection with which we have been received is tremendous. The President has been interacting with Bhutan for over 40 years now. He is held in great esteem, regard and affection by Bhutan, by its leadership, by the Monarchy, by the Prime Minister, and indeed by the common people as we saw in the unprecedented turnout of people lining the streets along with the school children waving flags.

I just wish to reiterate that the fundamental message we wanted to convey with these two highest level visits from our side and following on the visit by His Majesty himself in the beginning of the year to India where he was the first foreign guest to be invited to stay at the renovated guest wing of Rashtrapati Bhavan. These go beyond symbolism. They underline the deep and affectionate bonds between the two countries.

I just wanted to make these opening remarks. With that, I will hand over the microphone. I think that the Ambassador wanted to add a few words.

Indian Ambassador to Bhutan (Shri Gautam Bambawale): Thank you very much, Madam. I think I will add just a couple of points which will give you flavour of the visit so far.

I think the first point which many of you may have realised is that early this morning when we arrived at the airport at Paro, we suddenly realised that Their Majesties the King and Queen of Bhutan would be at the airport to receive the President of India. This had not been informed to us. We were expecting the Prime Minister to be there. He was there. But the very fact that Their Majesties made this very gracious gesture shows the nature of the unique and special relationship that exists between India and Bhutan.

The second point that I would like to make is that at the luncheon banquet which was hosted a few minutes ago by His Majesty the King almost the entire Royal Family was there and I think the entire Cabinet, the Prime Minister and all his Ministers, were also there. Once again I think this shows the strong partnership that exists between our two countries.

These were two of the points that I wanted to make to supplement what Foreign Secretary has already said. Thank you.

Press Secretary to President (Shri Venu Rajamony): To add to what has been said by the Foreign Secretary and by the Ambassador, let me just give you some facts so that it gives flesh for your stories.

The main meeting between His Majesty the King and the President lasted for approximately 45 minutes. All interaction between Indian leaders and Bhutanese leaders are normally very cordial, very friendly. But, this meeting stood out for its warmth. Both the President and the King reminisced about their past interaction as well as their respective experiences in personal and public life. During the meeting, the Minister of State for Railways as well as the Members of Parliament and senior officials were also present.

The discussions covered the entire gamut of bilateral relations. The President noted that there is perfect understanding of each other’s concerns and sensitivities. The President in particular praised the development strategy of Bhutan and its unique emphasis on the happiness of the people and the achievement of development without destruction of environment. The President described himself as a silent admirer who has watched Bhutan’s progress over the decades. He described hydropower cooperation between India and Bhutan as a win-win relationship and assured Bhutan of continued support from India.

The President recalled the role played by Bhutan under the leadership of the Fourth King in 2003 when operations were conducted to flush out extremists from Bhutan, and said this action should be an example to all SAARC countries. Bhutan does not indulge in terrorism, it does not believe in cross-border terrorism, and will make every serious effort to control and prevent it. The President asserted that Bhutan and India’s security is intricately interlinked and indivisible.

The President also lavished praise on Bhutan’s unique democratic experiment in which the Monarch gave up absolute power voluntarily and persuaded his people to accept democracy. He compared it with the experience of many other countries including in SAARC where people had to engage in a bitter fight for democratic rights. He congratulated Bhutan for passing the democracy test with distinction and honours.

The President expressed satisfaction over the cooperation being undertaken in the field of education and made specific reference to the several MoUs which would be signed during the visit. An MoU on Bhutan’s participation in the Nalanda University was signed between the Foreign Secretary of India and the Foreign Secretary of Bhutan today.

Responding to the President’s comments, the King paid tribute to the President and to the sage counsel and advice provided by the President to him whenever he met him, including even before he became King when he had called on him at the instructions of his father. The King said India-Bhutan relations have stood the test of time and grown exponentially. Both the Indian Prime Minister’s visit and the President’s visit are huge milestones.

The King described Bhutan’s national priorities as institution building to strengthen democracy, consolidating the economy, education and security. He emphasised that Bhutan and India’s security was interlinked, and what happens in India affects Bhutan and vice versa. He said that given India’s energy requirements, Bhutan’s contribution was small but India’s demand will keep growing and cooperation in the energy sector will make the two economies interdependent.

The King recalled the significant contribution of successive Kings of Bhutan and Indian leaders to building of India-Bhutan relations, and said that he considers it his responsibility to ensure that the relationship flourishes.

I think if there are any questions we can take them now.

Question: Bharat aur Bhutan ke beech abhi joh Pradhan Mantri aur Rashtrapati ki yatrayen hui hain, yeh joh ek dum se tezi aayi hai sambandhom mein, joh hum prayas kar rahe hain dono desh. Iska kaaran security hai ya aur koi karan hai? Cheen aur Bharat ke jo sambandh abhi chal rahe hein, kya uske bajah se ?

Foreign Secretary: Relations between India and Bhutan have always been extremely close. As you are aware, the new government has set its highest priority on improving relations with our neighbours, and our closest neighbour is Bhutan. So it is but natural that the Prime Minister would accept the invitation to visit Bhutan as his first destination. And the President has been visiting Bhutan several times, so many times that we have lost count, over the past forty years. And his visit now as President is a reaffirmation of the enduring ties between Bhutan and India.

Press Secretary to President: If I can just add to it, the President was asked a question on similar lines in an interview by a newspaper from Bhutan, ‘Kuensel’. We will have a transcript of the answers distributed to all of you. I will currently read what he said on this question.

“India-Bhutan relations stand on its own. We have been and continue to be close to each other. There was so much we are doing together and there is such great potential for us to scale new heights in the future. We do not need any third party or third country reason to come close to each other. My visit has absolutely no connection with Bhutan-China talks”.

Question: Bhutan and India have agreed to generate 1000 MW of electricity by 2020. Both the parties have agreed on this and they say it is achievable. But some reports say that it cannot be achieved …like the target… can’t be achieved… Madam Secretary, what do you have to say on this?

Foreign Secretary: You are aware that hydropower cooperation is one of the fundamentals of the relationship between our two countries, and we are already producing about 1600 MW. And the three projects that are presently under consideration are on track to provide another about 2500 MW. After that, we have another four joint venture agreements that are on track to provide another 2,500 to 3000 MW.

We are talking about over 6500 MW of electricity that is already in the process of implementation. These are very big hydropower projects. They have to be undertaken carefully and there is a great deal of planning and preparation. These things take time. So, we have to be patient. You have to see that what we are doing in the hydropower sector continues to grow and will continue to grow till both our end objectives are reached.

Question: Although China may not have come up directly in talks between India and Bhutan. It cannot be denied that China is the elephant in the room as far as India-Bhutan relations go. How worried is India about the China-Bhutan border talks and the pressure that China is bearing on Bhutan to set up a mission in Thimphu and to have diplomatic relations with Bhutan? And what I understand from media reports also is that India is not too happy about the development and does not want Bhutan to have diplomatic relations with China. Can you comment?

Foreign Secretary: First let me repeat what Venu said that relations between India and Bhutan stand on their own and they are independent of any other country. Second, if you have a border with a country, it is logical that you will have border talks. We have a border with China and we have border talks with them. Bhutan is a sovereign and independent country under the very wise leadership of its Monarchs and its Government. We have absolutely no doubt that Bhutan will deal with all these issues in a manner that is in the best interests of Bhutan and India.

Question: (BBS): My question is regarding hydropower projects. … Amochhu and Sankosh hydropower project is still in the pipeline because there are concerns that these two projects have been shelved, and India is also assisting a mega hydro power project in Nepal.

Foreign Secretary: Let me repeat what I said to a question few minutes back. We are already in the process of constructing three big hydropower projects. After that, we will have to construct another four hydropower projects. So, let us see how the process goes. This is not a static situation. It is an evolving situation. It is a situation that is dynamic. And one specific, you asked about hydropower in Nepal. There is no connection. There is absolutely no connection. The demand for electricity in India is going to always rise faster than Bhutan can generate power or Bhutan and Nepal can together generate power or independently. So, there is no connection. We will always be able to buy the power that our neighbours generate.

Question: Your Excellency, my question is with regard to the Nalanda University, Nalanda is a very important university for the entire Buddhist world maybe for its economic and cultural significance. How and in what manner the Government of India plans to revive this university and how can Bhutan benefit from this university?

Foreign Secretary: You are absolutely right. It is a very important project, not just for the Buddhist world but for the whole of Asia. It has a very historical and proud tradition of studies. The first course that is being taught was inaugurated just a couple of months back. And if I am not mistaken, it is in environmental studies. So, we are going to focus on several issues that are relevant to the present-day world. All countries can benefit from Nalanda University including Bhutan. Bhutanese students are welcome. We would more than welcome students from your country, and we would welcome students from all over the world. So, it is taking off the ground. It is going to be fully functional in a few years. And when that happens, it will truly be a very vital and living institution that connects us with all parts of Asia.

Question: I just want to know what is the status of the rail link between India and Bhutan which was planned in 2008.

Question: Just to supplement that question, the only Minister who has come here with the President is the Minister of State for Railways. I was wondering what is the reason when there is no railways in Bhutan?

Foreign Secretary: I am going to let Venu answer this question.

Press Secretary to President: This is also a question which was answered by the President in the interview to Kuensel. As regards the Golden Jubilee railway line, unfortunately both the routes – Hasimara-Phuntsholing and Hasimara-Tori Bari route pass through tea gardens or forest land. The conservation and livelihood aspects of these areas cannot be neglected. To resolve the matter, we are always open to ideas from Bhutan about any other routes to improve cross-border connectivity.

Question: Is what the Bhutanese think true that Mamata Banerjee is opposed to this idea of a railway link with Bengal’s northern region?

Foreign Secretary: Since Venu is being so gallant, let me enforce the one-question rule.

I do not have any information about that but the Ministry of Railways is looking at the feasibility of doing additional rail routes.

Thank you.

(Concluded)

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