Bhutan’s forthcoming urban expansion will be a great opportunity for Indian urban planners to closely observe an urbanism model rooted in the ethos of sustainability
On 17 December 2023, during the 116th National Day celebration of Bhutan, Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck announced that Bhutan will build an ‘International city’ in an area of over 1,000 sq. km. on its southern border with India. This development of the international city will be centred around the existing town of Gelephu, in Bhutan’s Sarpang district. The new international city is also planned to be a ‘green city’, in line with the sustainable and eco-friendly ethics widely practised in Bhutan, which has earned the nation as the only carbon-negative nation in the world. King Jigme Wangchuck, Bhutan’s monarchical head, acknowledged India’s role behind the aspiration of Bhutan’s international city, by citing India’s recent declaration to fund a railway link between Kokrajhar in Assam and Gelephu in Bhutan. The railway route is planned to connect important roadways, along with trading and crossing points from Bhutan into Assam and West Bengal (both the Indian states share a border with Bhutan). According to the goals stated by King Jigme Wangchuck, the new Gelephu International City will facilitate Bhutan’s participation in the economic transformation of South Asia and put Bhutan on the path to “new opportunities, to markets, capital, new ideas and technology….”.
Until recently, Bhutan’s primary source of revenue has been hydroelectricity export and tourism. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a significant downfall in the incomes of the tourism industry. Bhutan also witnessed an increased out-migration of youth and educated professionals in recent years, with unemployment figures reaching 20 percent. To address these issues, a growth-intensive urban project was necessitated, which took the form of the proposed ‘international city’. The city project is also referred to as ‘Gelephu Smart City’ and ‘Gelephu Mindfulness City’ in King Jigme Wangchuck’s address and subsequent media coverage in Bhutan. Such multiple branding of the project is tied to the numerous goals that Bhutan aims to achieve in the near future in terms of connectivity, economic growth, and bilateral/multilateral ties. Such developments would be aligned with Bhutan’s own vision and values of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which sets it apart from conventional models of growth.
Bhutan also witnessed an increased out-migration of youth and educated professionals in recent years, with unemployment figures reaching 20 percent.
The Gelephu-centric connectivity projects, along with other road-rail initiatives, are directed towards increasing flows and exchanges with India and other Southeast Asian nations such as Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Singapore. In many ways, Bhutan’s vision of achieving national goals through focused urbanisation sits well with the agendas of India’s Act East Policy. Border towns across Northeast India configure prominently in India’s Act East Policy and India has made significant investments in developing border towns in areas bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar. The recent political turmoil in Myanmar has limited India’s scope of expanding connectivity through its Northeast. Bhutan’s drive towards developing a formidable bordertown in Gelephu can significantly boost India’s connectivity goals through a bilateral mechanism and cooperation.
The increased bilateral connectivity and ties between India and Bhutan presents a significant opportunity for Northeast India. In particular, Assam, which borders Bhutan stands to significantly benefit from the Gelephu International City Project. The importance for Assam in Bhutan’s future plans was evident from the meeting between King Jigme Wangchuck and Assam’s Chief Minister during the former’s visit to India in November 2023. Significantly, Gelephu shares a border with Assam’s Chirang district, which is one of the five districts under the jurisdiction of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), an autonomous council established under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. The BTC was an outcome of the Bodoland Movement, which demanded autonomy in different forms (separate state, separate nation), by citing lack of development in the Bodo inhabited regions within Assam. The BTC, like most of the other autonomous councils in Northeast India, has to depend on their respective state’s budget allocation for funds. The Gelephu International City Project can significantly boost the economic activities within Chirang District and other BTC districts, leading to increased revenues for the BTC and less dependence on funds from the state and central governments. Towns within the BTC, such as Bongaingaon, Kajalgaon, and Kokrajhar can assume greater importance by facilitating connectivity and trade. On the other hand, connectivity would open up possibilities for eco-tourism in villages in the BTC close to Bhutan’s border, which offers a plethora of natural beauty.
The importance for Assam in Bhutan’s future plans was evident from the meeting between King Jigme Wangchuck and Assam’s Chief Minister during the former’s visit to India in November 2023.
The proximate location of the Manas National Park, which hosts the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary (World Heritage Site), could be leveraged to create a network of sustainable tourism initiatives in the region. In addition, once greater connectivity is achieved with Gelephu, following its expansion into an International City, a unique tourism circuit can be formulated by including wildlife parks across the Indo-Bhutan borders comprising the Manas National Park in India, and the Jigme Singye Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary, Royal Manas National Park, Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary in Bhutan. Bhutan’s existing paradigm of sustainable tourism, coupled with the spending capacity of tourists from India and elsewhere, can be a win-win situation for the local population across the Indo-Bhutan border. Active stakeholder engagement by the local governing institutions like the BTC in regional and urban development, will be a significant step towards satisfying India’s mandate of decentralisation enshrined in the 74th Constitution Amendment Act (CAA), 1992.
At a geopolitical level, India is already playing a proactive role in mediating regional development by agreeing to allow Bhutanese trade items to be exported to Chilahati in Bangladesh through Halidbari, West Bengal. This has the potential to usher in development in Southern Bhutan and Northern Bangladesh, along with Northern West Bengal. Such collective and compatible development goals shared by Bhutan and India, is likely to serve well in the regional geopolitics, wherein both the nations have been engaging in contentious border disputes with China.
Bhutan’s development is based on the principle of retaining uniquely Bhutanese characteristics, with deep imprints of their cultural and spiritual heritage.
India’s close involvement in Bhutan’s International City project can offer a great learning opportunity for Indian planners and administrators. India is urbanising at a fast rate, and according to the United Nations estimate by 2030, more than 400 million people will be living in cities in India. Bhutan’s development is based on the principle of retaining uniquely Bhutanese characteristics, with deep imprints of their cultural and spiritual heritage. Bhutan’s development story is marked with declining poverty and increasing Human Development Indicators (HDI). Such an approach works as a guardrail against extractive economic practices and development models. While there is a growing realisation in India that cities need to majorly revamp their policy and practices towards building equitable, inclusive, and resilient cities, much needs to be done to create an enabling framework. Bhutan’s forthcoming urban expansion, aligned with its long standing practice of development with values will be a great opportunity for Indian urban planners and policy makers to have a closer understanding of a feasible urbanism model rooted in the ethos of sustainability.
Snehashish Mitra is a Fellow with the Urban Studies at the Observer Research Foundation
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Snehashish is a Fellow-Urban Studies at ORF Mumbai. His research focus is on issues of urban housing, environmental justice, borderlands and citizenship politics. He has extensive ...Read More +