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A 35 member delegation from Bhutan led by their MP and a senior civil servant attached to the King of Bhutan and comprising professionals from different technical, legal, educational, scientific and environmental specialties arrived at Shillong recently on a learning trip. The delegation visited three states of North East India, namely Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya. This group had an interface with civil society members, government officials and people of other professions at the Asian Confluence. There was a healthy exchange of views and several questions posed by both sides were succinctly answered. Some of the participants from the home state were however curious as to what the Bhutanese delegation with a small and manageable population, a carbon neutral environment and a country known for maintaining a healthy Gross National Happiness Index, would want to learn from India and its states which are battling the ravages of environmental degradation and population explosion.
The Bhutanese delegation’s response was simple. The North Eastern states of India are their closest neighbours and there would be mutual benefit in engaging in trade and commerce and also cooperating in the area of tourism and food processing. Besides, the opening up of the Bangladesh, India, Bhutan and Nepal route would present a great opportunity for economic cooperation. The Bhutanese delegation admitted that they too were now under pressure to grow at a faster pace to meet the needs of a young aspirational generation that makes up nearly half of Bhutan’s population (15-40 years age group). Interestingly despite having a population of only 7.34 lakhs, about 18 % of that population is engaged in child labour (5-14 years of age). This would mean there is a disguised poverty in Bhutan which is not reflected at the time of computing the Gross Happiness Index. Either that or people have accepted their fates in the tradition of Buddhism.
That the Bhutanese were keen to learn about overland trade and commerce is evident from the fact that the delegation spent one whole day visiting the Land Customs Station at Dawki to find out the volume of trade between India and Bangladesh and how Bhutan could develop a similar LCS vis-a- vis its neighbours. The delegation were dignified in the manner they responded to some very searching questions from the side of the Meghalaya participants. What intrigued the foreign visitors, however was the long queue of trucks at the Srirampur gate between Assam and West Bengal. They wanted to know the reason for this delay. Perhaps they could have put this question to the officials in Assam while interacting with them. Meghalaya has a lot to learn from Bhutan about niche, high end tourism and we hope the engagement continues.