India-Bhutan Ties Soaring to New Heights

The Government of India announced on February 2, 2023 its support for developing Bhutan’s third international internet gateway. In this respect, the Indian Embassy in Bhutan said that the government would facilitate a concessional rate to lessen the cost of the gateway’s operations.

The new announcement is part of the expanding India-Bhutan digital collaboration. Bhutan’s third international internet gateway would enhance internet bandwidth, connect remote pockets of Bhutan and decrease the cost of internet connectivity for users.

India is one of the most reliable development partners of Bhutan. It is partnering up with Bhutan on several technology initiatives including Bhutan’s Flagship Programme, viz, “Digital Drukyul’, which is an optical fibre backbone provided to the gewog (village) level around all 20 districts of Bhutan.

The Indian government is donating NU 1.98 billion (Rs. 198 crore) during the 12th Five Year Plan (2018-23) in order to support the digital transformation of Bhutan via several people-centric projects in education, e-governance, trade and service delivery.

Bhutan’s ICT Policy (2009) has overall policy objectives of using ICT for good governance, create a Bhutanese info culture; and a hi-tech habitat. The government of Bhutan is working with India to realize these goals.

India has been proactively supporting Bhutan in its efforts to establish a digital infrastructure and use it for good governance, e-commerce and service delivery in which India’s experiments have drawn the attention of multilateral agencies as well as other global forums. Towards this goal, the Indian Embassy had earlier organized a technology roundtable with Bhutan’s leading technology and innovation experts to discuss ways to enhance Indo-Bhutan cooperation in the digital technology sector.

The roundtable called by the Indian Embassy witnessed the participation of representatives from the De-Sung Skilling Programme, the Royal Society for STEM, The Royal Government of Bhutan, Thimpu Techpart Ltd, Govtech Agency, Druk Gyalpo’s Institute and several civil society organizations and various private sector tech companies in Bhutan. This itself is an evidence of increasing interest of Bhutan stakeholders in enhancing collaboration with India, given India’s shining track record in digital technology.

In order to give a fillip to research and development and also training of human resources, India and Bhutan have launched a peering arrangement between India’s National Knowledge Network (NKN) and Bhutan Druk Research and Education Network (DrukREN) to benefit users in Bhutan in telemedicine services, research and education.

India, as the most reliable development partner of Bhutan in digital and cyber technologies is cooperating with Bhutan to realize its vision 2020 the implementation of which was disrupted during the Covid-19 pandemic. The vision seeks to make Bhutan a prosperous and happy nation and use technology in the interest of the people.

Keeping in view the advantages of digital technology and ICT, Bhutan government ramped up its efforts to promote these technologies. Up until 20 years ago, the country was isolated from world; Bhutan’s first ever television broadcast occurred in 1999, since then information communication technology (ICT) has made rapid advancement. Mobile subscriptions in Bhutan increased from 0.4 per 100 people in 2003 to 87 in 2015. The proportion of people using internet in the country increased from 0.1% in 1999 to 40% in 2015. By 2015, all 20 districts and 201 (out of 205) sub-districts were connected through fiber optic cables.
In the last seven years, Bhutan has made tremendous strides in the realm of telecommunication and digital technology. According to World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report on “Digital Dividends”, digital technologies go a long way in boosting growth, expanding opportunities and improving service delivery. Another World Bank report, “World Bank Group Engagement with small states”, had concluded that ICT investments could help reduce economic isolation, lessen barriers to trade, promote tourism and improve mobility.

In 2021, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bhutanese government launched the G2B digital government portal, using UNCTAD’s customizable digital platform. Then, it had been described as a ground breaking piece of software that earned the country recognition as the fastest place in the world to start a new business. Now the journey of digitalization in the country would continue in cooperation with India. The digitalization would help the small businesses 90% of which are cottage industries. Micro enterprises of the country would use this technology for quick access to consumers to deliver their products and services.
In his recent three day official visit (18-20 January) to Bhutan on the invitation of his Bhutanese counterpart Pema Choden, the Foreign Secretary of India Mr. Vinay Mohan Kwatra held significant bilateral meetings and conveyed India’s firm commitment to taking India-Bhutan ties into new frontiers of partnership. The two sides held wide-ranging discussions on the entire gamut of bilateral relations including development partnership under Bhutan’s 12th Five Year Plan, energy cooperation, technology, trade and economic ties and people-to-people contacts. The Bhutanese side also shared their plans and expectations with regard to Bhutan’s 13th Five Year Plan in the control of ongoing transformation initiatives in Bhutan. Apart from co-chairing the 4th India-Bhutan Development Cooperation Talks, India’s Foreign Secretary and Bhutanese counterpart inaugurated key projects implemented with assistance from the Government of India. The projects include the Citizen Service Portals, National Single Window Portal and Government Initiated Network Project under the Flagship Digital Drukyul Project.

India is one of the main trading partners of Bhutan constituting about 90% of its total exports and 87% of total imports. There is huge complementarity between the two countries due to location, natural resources, expertise and goodwill. The cooperation in developing ICT and digital infrastructure would cement the relationship further.

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