Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday outlined a new blueprint for cooperation between India and Bhutan, identifying space, education, and health as areas that would add a fresh dimension to ties dominated so far by cooperation in the hydel power sector.
The Prime Minister invited more students to visit India for studies in traditional areas such as Buddhism and newer areas like space research, while speaking to students at the Royal University of Bhutan during a visit to the country sandwiched between India and China within three months of assuming office for a second time.
Modi arrived in Thimphu on Saturday on a two-day visit, his first to Bhutan since the 73-day India-China standoff in 2017 triggered by an intrusion by Chinese troops into territory claimed by Bhutan.
One of the key outcomes of the visit was Modi and Bhutanese prime minister Lotay Tshering inaugurating the 720 megawatts (MW) Mangdechhu hydel power project on Saturday.
Modi and Tshering also jointly inaugurated the Ground Earth Station and SATCOM network, developed with assistance from Isro for utilization of South Asia Satellite in Bhutan with Modi adding that India is committed to facilitating Bhutan’s development through the use of space technology.
“India-Bhutan cooperation in hydropower and energy is exemplary. But the real source of power and energy of this relationship are our people," Modi said on Sunday before returning to Delhi.
“We are seeking to cooperate extensively in new frontiers, from schools to space and digital payments to disaster management," he said. “At any point, over four thousand students from Bhutan are engaged in studies in India. This number can and should grow."
“I am happy that we have begun new chapters of engagement between India’s premier IITs and this prestigious university. We hope that these will lead to more collaborative learning and research," Modi said, amid concerns in India that the number of Bhutanese students from elite families opting to study in India was falling.
Modi’s comments come at a time when some news reports have pointed at Bhutan seeking to refashion its economic ties with India, moving towards more investments than aid. In his meeting with Tshering on Saturday, Modi and his Bhutanese host agreed on the need “to look at new areas of healthcare, education, science and technology", Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said late on Saturday.
“Earlier, we used to have children from the families of the Bhutanese elite being educated in India. But now that trend has changed. The families of well-to-do and influential Bhutanese are sending their children to study in the West," said Smruti Pattnayak, an analyst with the government-backed Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses think tank in New Delhi.
A joint statement issued after Modi’s return from Bhutan said “both sides reaffirmed their shared security interests and reiterated their commitment to maintain close co-ordination on matters affecting each other’s security and national interests."