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At the wheel in Bhutan, a hands-on PM

Thimphu, June 16: An armada of police and military vehicles escorted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Paro International Airport. A couple of hours after the Indian Air Force flight took off, a Tesla S, a battery-driven sedan, hit the streets of Thimphu.

At the wheel was Tshering Tobgay, the Prime Minister of Bhutan.

A proponent of clean energy, the Bhutanese Prime Minister is trying to promote battery-driven cars in the Himalayan state to keep its environment clean and save on the country’s fuel bill.

At a news conference after Modi’s departure, Tobgay rued how the spiralling fuel bill was exerting pressure on the country’s economy.

“Our import bill is going up steadily because of rising fuel imports…. We export only hydropower but import almost everything else, including fuel. If this is the case, you are asking for deficit,” Tobgay said.

Some Bhutanese policymakers are worried about the trade deficit, resulting from the widening gap between the import bill and export earnings, which had led to a shortage of the Indian rupee, the currency the people of Bhutan use to settle import bills.

“There have been problems over availability of the rupee but things are under control now,” said Tobgay.

He said that during his meetings with Modi, the rupee issue came up. On his part, Tobgay is trying to reduce the country’s fuel bill by promoting battery-driven cars.

Although some battery-driven cars could be spotted on the streets of Thimphu, officials said that the penetration was far less than the expectation of the Prime Minister, who is in talks with several auto companies to set up assembly units of battery-driven cars in Bhutan.

If his attempts bear results, not only will his dream for a green and clean Bhutan be achieved, it will also add to foreign exchange reserves of the country with a GDP of Rs 10,000 crore.

“If we have to earn more, we will have to produce more hydropower,” said Tobgay, who laid emphasis on expanding tourism, developing the agro sector and exploring opportunities in the mining industry.

Although Modi was not available for media interaction during his Bhutan trip, Tobgay fielded questions.

The Bhutanese Prime Minister drove himself to the news conference, with a lone security officer sitting at the back.

“This is how he moves around… He is a simple man. Besides, Bhutan is a peaceful country,” said an official.

Tshering Tobgay

Sources in the Bhutanese government said that Tobgay was relieved today as the two-day visit of the Indian Prime Minister, preparations for which he personally monitored, went off without a hitch.

The ever-smiling Prime Minister — who can be contacted on his cellphone — also expressed his happiness with the outcome of Modi’s visit.

“We are honoured and humbled with his visit. We did not expect any immediate economic gains from the visit…. It was a celebration of our friendship,” said Tobgay, an alumnus of universities like Harvard and Pittsburgh.

Tobgay has a Bengal connection as well — he received his secondary school education at Dr Graham’s Homes in Kalimpong.

The Prime Minister expressed his satisfaction with the progress India and Bhutan had made towards achieving the target of importing 10,000MW of hydropower to India by 2020.

Modi today unveiled the foundation stone of the 600MW Kholongchu Hydropower Project, a joint venture between Indian and Bhutanese public sector units.

“Though I am not sure whether we can achieve the target of exporting 10,000MW by 2020, today’s unveiling of the project is an acknowledgement that it is a shared goal,” said Tobgay.

He rolled out the other takeaways for Bhutan from Modi’s visit, highlighting how the Indian government has promised to exempt Bhutan from any ban or quantitative restrictions on exports of milk powder, wheat, edible oil, pulses and non-basmati rice.

He also praised the Indian Prime Minister for proposing a university for Himalayan studies.