India and Bhutan


  • In the larger scheme of things, highway markers — the reflective stickers on railings that guide traffic on Bhutan’s steep mountain roads — should not be a big issue.

Project Dantak:

  • The Border Roads Organisation, which helps build Bhutanese roads under Project Dantak, decided in July to make highway markers in shades of the Indian tricolour
  • Highway markers are the reflective stickers on railings that guide traffic on Bhutan’s steep mountain roads
  • Citizens were worried that this was an attempt by India to impose its flag on their countryside
  • The incident was a blip in India-Bhutan relations

Issues to be resolved:

  • The ensuing months may also be a useful interlude to revise India’s Bhutan policy and address several issues that have come up in the past few years
  • These include the hydropower projects where delays in constructing and commissioning in Bhutan by Indian companies have led to the country’s burgeoning national debt
  • India also needs to focus on policing cross-border trade better
  • The goods and services tax still hurts Bhutanese exporters, and demonetisation has left lasting scars on the banking system

Dealing with China:

  • The biggest issue between India and Bhutan will remain how to deal with China
  • The Doklam crisis has brought home many realities for the Bhutanese establishment
  • Doklam, which has long been discussed as part of a possible “package solution” to the Bhutan-China border dispute, could become a point of India-China conflagration, with Bhutan becoming a hapless spectator in the middle
  • China’s actions since last June, to build a permanent military presence above the stand-off point, mean that Bhutan has a much-reduced advantage in any forthcoming negotiations on the issue

Way Forward

  • Unless India finds ways to help Bhutan, it will be accused of the same sort of “debt-trapping” that China is accused of today
  • India must step lightly and thoughtfully around the upcoming election
  • Raising concern about highway sticker may be a small incident but it is a clear indicator of heightened sensitivities in the Himalayan kingdom and India should take steps to ensure that the sovereignty of Bhutan is not compromised in its support efforts


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