Explained: Why Gelephu SAR in Bhutan will be a game-changer in the region

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By ETV Bharat English Team

Published : Dec 18, 2023, 7:26 PM IST

Updated : Dec 18, 2023, 8:56 PM IST

The Gelephu Special Administrative Region (SAR) called the Gelephu Mindfulness City announced by Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk on the occasion of the Himalayan kingdom’s National Day is expected to be a game-changer for the region facilitating productive flow of capital and knowledge.

During his National Day speech, Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk announced that a special administrative region will be developed in Gelephu bordering India’s northeastern state of Assam. Why will this project be a game-changer for the region? ETV Bharat’s Aroonim Bhuyan writes.

New Delhi: The Gelephu Special Administrative Region (SAR) called the Gelephu Mindfulness City announced by Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk on the occasion of the Himalayan kingdom’s National Day is expected to be a game-changer for the region facilitating productive flow of capital and knowledge.

Gelephu Mindfulness City will be developed in Sarpang district of Bhutan bordering Chirang district in India’s northeastern state of Assam. Gelephu is one of three entry points to Bhutan from India, the others being Samdrup Jongkhar to its east and Phuntsholing to its west. During his National Day speech, Wangchuk said that South Asia is experiencing an unprecedented economic transformation.

“This is a period of growth and a period of immense opportunities for our region, which is home to around two billion people,” the website of The Bhutanese newsweekly quoted him as saying. “The land connection from Gelephu or Samdrup Jongkhar through Assam and northeast Indian states, to Myanmar, Thailand, to Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, is a vibrant economic corridor linking South Asia to Southeast Asia.”

This ambitious initiative, covering approximately 1,000 sq km from Taraythang Gewog to Singye Gewog in the Himalayan foothills, seeks to elevate Gelephu into a prosperous economic centre, not only benefitting Bhutan but also contributing to the broader South Asian region. In his address, Wangchuck highlighted the vision for the Gelephu SAR, recognising the influence of Bhutanese individuals living abroad in propelling the nation toward unprecedented socio-economic advancement. This commitment underscores the government’s dedication to harnessing the potential of its global diaspora.

Wangchuk said that the Gelephu SAR, as an economic hub, will have the autonomy to formulate laws and policies that are needed. It will have executive autonomy and legal independence. “The purpose of establishing this SAR is to create a vibrant economic hub,” the Monarch said. “There are economic hubs elsewhere that invite foreign investment by providing a conducive business environment and compelling incentives. Bhutan’s economic hub will offer all that and more.”

He further stated that it will be one-of-a-kind, anchored on the vision and values of the globally acclaimed Gross National Happiness (GNH). “It will be a Mindfulness City, encompassing conscious and sustainable businesses, inspired by Buddhist spiritual heritage, and distinguished by the uniqueness of the Bhutanese identity,” he said.

According to the Monarch, there will be a screening process to ensure that the companies and people who come to Gelephu are sensitive to Bhutanese culture and traditions, respect Bhutanese identity, and share Bhutan’s values. All businesses will be invitation-based, and Bhutan will select only those that are most beneficial for the country and people.

Wangchuk stressed that the success of the Gelephu project will depend on three priority areas – energy, connectivity and skills upgradation. Highlighting that Bhutan needs to further expand its energy sector, he said that all available energy sources, including solar, wind, thermal and hydropower need to be tapped. "Considering our current expertise, we need to enhance the installed capacity of hydropower by expediting the construction of projects such as Kholongchu, Chamkharchu, Dorjilung, Nyera Amari, Wangchu, Bunakha and Sunkosh, for which detailed project reports (DPRs) are ready,” he said. “Our electricity prices should be among the most competitive in the region so that our hydro resources are not just a source of revenue, but also an enabler of other investments.”

As for connectivity, Wangchuk said that a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of an international airport in Gelephu will be held later this month. Construction of the airport will be started after the monsoon season in 2024 and will be completed within two years. Sticking with the issue of connectivity, he said that during his visit to India last month, the Government of India expressed its full commitment to improve and expand the major roads leading to Bhutan.

“They also pledged to connect two or three of our border towns with railway lines,” the King of Bhutan said. "I would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Government of India for their continued goodwill and support.”

Wangchuk’s announcement of the Gelephu SAR project coincides with the concurrent development of a 57.5-km railway line linking Kokrajhar in Assam with Gelephu. The Rs 10-billion project, a result of discussions between King Wangchuck and Modi during the former’s visit to Delhi, signifies a historic milestone in rail connectivity between the two nations. Recognising the pivotal role of smooth trade in fostering economic growth, there are plans to upgrade the existing Land Customs station at Dadgiri in Assam to an Integrated Check Post. This, combined with infrastructure enhancements on the Bhutanese side at Gelephu, will pave the way for a more efficient and streamlined cross-border trade environment.

It is worth recalling that the King had started his eight-day visit to India in November through Assam. From Assam, he left for New Delhi where he held talks with Modi, and from there, he went to Mumbai where he met leading industrialists and businessmen. The announcement of the Gelephi SAR project came only after the visit. Soon after Wangchuk left Assam for New Delhi, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had convened a meeting of officials concerned and directed them to upgrade and improve all roads leading to Bhutan.

As for the third focus area, skills upgradation, Wangchuk, during his National Day speech on Sunday, said that Bhutanese people must take advantage of every opportunity to equip themselves for success. “What we lack in numbers we have to make up for in the abilities and talent of our people,” he said. He said that Gelephu will become a gateway connecting Bhutan to the world and the future. It will be “a gateway to the world – to markets, capital, new ideas, knowledge, and technology towards our future – to chart our destiny”.

"The Gelephu SAR is a game-changing idea not only for Bhutan and India but also the larger region,” Sabyasachi Dutta, Executive Director of the Shillong-based think tank Asian Confluence, told ETV Bharat. “As envisaged, it will bring in productive flow of capital, knowledge, and innovative ideas through next-generation technology.” According to Dutta, the Gelephi SAR can serve as a hub of connectivity for Bhutan to South and Southeast Asia and the Bay of Bengal region.

“Under the guidance and mentorship of the King, Bhutan is already engaging with the top minds globally in the fields of technology such as digital identity and cryptocurrency,” he said. “This idea of a smart border city will enhance the thought leadership of Bhutan in the region and take India-Bhutan relations to the next level.”

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Last Updated :Dec 18, 2023, 8:56 PM IST
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