Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Doklam Thaw - Nothing Changes for Bhutan

It appears that there is a thaw in the stand-off at Doklam between China and India. Both Chinese and Indian spokespersons have individually made the disengagement announcements to the world audience.

But nothing changes for Bhutan – the issue remains unresolved – to be stoked time and again in the future, at the will and fancy of China or India. This temporary respite is nothing to be gleeful about. We need to resolve this border issue, once and for all.

One Nepali writer – Mr. Bihari Krishna Shrestha - recently wrote as follows:

“Talking about Bhutan too, recently there was a BJP leader who had the impudence to tell his audience in Kathmandu that India would like to see Nepal remain “as happy as Bhutan”. One just has to ask the Bhutanese if they are happy to be remaining as what is basically India’s caged pet!”

Caged pet indeed! I should take offense at his remark – and I do – but not for the malice that was intended – but for failing to use a more precise nomenclature to describe the true nature of Bhutan-India relationship. By definition, “pet” is not a plaything – but an object of love and adoration and indulgence. Mr. Bihari Krishna Shrestha does not seem to be aware that Bhutan does not have the good fortune to be India’s pet. He would have been spot on if he had added a short 3-letters word “pup” before the “pet”.

Disengagement at Doklam between China and India is cold comfort for Bhutan. In fact, why are we even talking about it? But certainly, there is a lesson to be learnt from this incident – that Bhutan runs the risk of being violated by any one of these big powers, as and when they have a need for posturing. And they will do it with impunity – as has happened this June. So the answer is: sort it out once and for all. And let us do it quickly – the time for pussyfooting around the issue is over.

Without so much as a by your leave, two invading foreign armies were engaged in acts of aggression, in a region that we believe is ours. Our fear is not the dread of loss of territory that is in any event under dispute – but the fall out from a war that is not of our waging. If China and India wishes to engage in war, they should do so in their own territories – not on ours.

Until this Doklam incident happened, 99% of Bhutanese did not know that there was a dispute between China and Bhutan, at that location which is now being called Doka-La. My own understanding was that the dispute was further up North where the Google map clearly shows as disputed territory – a patch of land known as Doklam Plateau. The dispute down south I have never heard before, nor does the Google map show it as a disputed territory.

Ever since the Doklam incident, I have started to look at the map a little more closely. Because, frankly, the treaty of 1890 that keeps popping up does not relate to Bhutan and its territorial boundaries. For me, the traditional knowledge of the Haaps and the Tibetans is more authentic than the lines drawn on the map - because they have physically lived those boundaries that have existed for hundreds of years. I am unwilling to accept that those imaginary lines drawn across the map – like those of the McMahon Lines in the North-East, hold water because the boundaries were never surveyed and demarcated between Bhutan and Tibet-China.

China and India are big countries – but truth is bigger than both of them combined. Thus, let us settle the borders, based on what is THE TRUTH. One cannot hope to alter the truth simply because it does not suite ones purpose.

All manners of maps are being put out in the internet - there is whole lot of confusion out there. For the benefit of the confused Bhutanese, I spent some time to study the maps and the claims and counter claims being made on the territories. In the following maps, I have clearly marked what is the current claim made by Bhutan and those made by China. Rest I leave to your imagination.


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Doklam Plateau And The Shifting Tri-junction Points

As much as I try to desist from writing on the issue of Doklam that has prompted a hoard of ill-informed and poorly educated people around the world to hurl derogatory terms such as “puppet”, “vassal”, “protectorate” etc. at Bhutan and the Bhutanese people, I am unable to contain myself, simply because what is being put out is so much falsehood and misinformation and treachery and dishonesty.

The stand-off between India and China, from what is clearly obvious, is not based on their necessity for that piece of land, or on their legal or historical right of ownership over that land, but because, by their own admission, that land will give one of them strategic dominance over the other. If contemplation of war is at the core of their act of belligerence, all that one can say of these two countries is that they suffer from paucity of morality and human decency. It is Bhutan’s misfortune that we are centered between these two debauched nations.

It is rather odd that the world is being mislead into believing that these two nations need, of all things, a desolately located Himalayan plateau, called Doklam Plateau, to give them military dominance over the other. How many of us will buy that logic? If wars are to be fought and won, it will not be won from atop a frigid plateau located deep inside the Himalayan ranges. Each of these two nations have superior military power, with nuclear capability. Thus, if war is their intention, each of them can simply activate a switch siting in Beijing and New Delhi and annihilate each other from the face of this earth. Thus their argument that Doklam Plateau is critical to their national security is not tenable.

Even if that were true, it is still not good enough or valid enough reason for any country to trample on the sovereignty of a small and peaceful country such as Bhutan, who is, after all, the only country that has the moral authority and historical legitimacy, to give credence to the claims and counter claims being made by these two countries who are shamelessly engaged in irrelevant verbosity.

The world would have noticed that the one country that, by right, should be at the center of this brouhaha is conspicuously silent over the whole matter - other than a half-hearted Demarche issued in June of this year.

Doklam Plateau is at the Tri-junction of Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet. Of these three countries, Bhutan is the only one that is still standing. China and India may have selectively annexed Sikkim and Tibet, but their overlording these nation states do not empower them to speak with knowledge and authority. Their relevance begins in 1950 in the case of China, and 1975 in the case of India. As opposed to that, the knowledge base of the people of Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet on the matter goes back many centuries.

While India was buckling under the successive colonial yoke of the British Raj, the French and the Portuguese, the Bhutanese and the Tibetans were happily grazing their yaks in the Doklam Plateau areas – fully cognizant and respectful of their respective boundaries. There was no confusion.

Similarly, while the Manchus and the Mongols and the Japanese were one after the other subjugating the Chinese, the Bhutanese and the Tibetan’s were quite merrily trading and exchanging merchandise across their borders and living in harmony.

Something that the world must consider very seriously, even if the Chinese and the Indians won’t, is this: there was never any disagreement between Bhutan and Tibet concerning their territorial boundaries. The Bhutanese and the Tibetans made their annual migrations to the pasture lands in the Doklam areas, to graze their yaks in peace and harmony. They both knew and respected the exact locations of their respective boundaries.

So then why is there a dispute now? How can two Johnnies-come-lately start disagreeing on the physical boundaries that have been in place for centuries – perhaps even pre-dating their respective civilizations? Has there been some tectonic shift in the Eastern Himalayas that have caused some drastic geographical alterations in the Doklam areas, causing traditional boundaries to go for a spin?

Four years to the month (August 2013), I had written that the issue of Doklam is dangerous and that we should resolve it without delay. Four years since, we are still engaged in the same useless cock and bull story that cannot contribute to solving the problem that needs solving. We all know that without the backing of truth behind what we do, whatever we do will be doomed to failure. Let us not postpone that which is inevitable – the dispute needs to be resolved – it cannot be postponed forever. Doing so thus far has already complicated the issues as can be seen from the following:

To begin with, the disputed area between Bhutan and China was supposed to be at the Doklam Plateau areas, located on the West-South of Haa, as depicted in the above map.

The most recent claims emerging as a result of the stand-off between China and India indicate that the Tri-junction is now centered at a place called Gymochen, further down south of Batang-La which was earlier taken as the Tri-junction point.

Consequent upon relocation of the Tri-junction point to Gymochen further down south, China now claims addition land, as indicated above.

Bhutan should settle the issue of the Northern borders with China, without further delay. It would be stupid to assume that we can stall the matter indefinitely - a day will dawn on us when we have to make the settlement - we all know that. Thus, it is better that we do it sooner than later. If 24 rounds of border talks with China hasn't brought us any closer to arriving at a settlement, I do not know what will help.

 Certainly not audacity!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Emerging Crisis at Doklam

In the aftermath of the standoff at Doklam between India and China, there have been some discussions about Bhutan being a vassal or protectorate of India. The resurgence of this confusion and ambiguity is evocative of the post independent India, when this subject was keenly discussed and debated as a process of the consolidation of free India.

Upon seeking clarification from Sir Benegal Narsinga Rau, the Constitutional Advisor of the Government of India, the following is how he interpreted the status of Bhutan in 1947, in relation to India:

“Bhutan could not be an Indian State ‘strictly so-called’ and could not be taken even to be State in India. Its precise legal status was, therefore, of a foreign state governed by treaty relations. It was a foreign because it was in law not an Indian State nor was it a British territory. It was governed by the limitations imposed by the agreement which Bhutan had signed in 1910 with the British in India.”

So, the confusion and misunderstanding had been cleared 70 years back - as far back as 1947. Thus, any further discussion on the matter is inconsequential. However, what needs to be discussed is the progenitor of all the discussions: Doklam and the standoff that persists there!

My interpretation
It is my view that this was an orchestrated posturing by India, without ill will, ofcourse.

Let us follow the march of events:

18th June, 2017     - Doklam scuffle starts

25th June, 2017     - Indian PM Modi visits USA where he signs deals for
                                 purchase of drones.

4th July, 2017       - Prime Minister Modi visits Israel – first ever official visit
                                 by an Indian Prime Minister to the Jewish State of Israel.
                                 During the trip Modi signs deals for purchase of military
                                 hardware running into billions over many years – deals that
                                 USA is reluctant to make with India directly, for fear of
                                 repercussions from China to whom USA owes trillions.

10th July, 2017     - the tri-nation Malabar Naval Exercise in the Bay of Bengal
                                 begins, in an obvious demonstration of US’s pivot towards
                                 India and a new found camaraderie between the three
                                 nation states of India, Japan and the US.

To me it seems like PM Modi is on a shopping spree, for military hardware, and needed this posturing at Doklam to ramp up support at home. This may or may not be true – but what is clear is that India seems to be in some kind of desperation to deploy their military inside Bhutanese territory.

During the crisis of the early 1960’s arising out of the assassination of the late Prime Minister Jigme Palden Dorji, India seems to have contemplated deploying their military inside Bhutanese territory. On 2nd May, 1964, the then Indian Foreign Secretary Mr. Y. D. Gundevia, in his “Notes on Bhutan” wrote as follows:

“To begin with, it was felt that we could parachute a battalion into Thimphu, which would be supported by more troops transported by road from Hashimara. We had debated that if we were forced to do this, this might provoke the Chinese into crossing the Bhutan border from Chumbi valley.”

The fear of China coming to the aid of Bhutan seems to have prevented them from doing so.

Again, in the early 1990’s India offered to deploy their military to flush out a number of their militants forcibly camping inside the forests of Southern Bhutan. Our fourth King politely but successfully warded off such a perilous move. However, this year India seems to have finally been able to forcibly deploy some of their armed military personnel inside Bhutanese territory, in Doklam area. Bhutan is now in a crisis mode, as a result.

China is obviously aware that Bhutan will never invite Indian soldiers to jostle them at Doklam, thus they are incensed by this intrusion into what they point out is none of India’s business. China is livid that India has the audacity to brazenly trespass into Bhutanese territory – to mount military confrontation against them.

Does this go to prove the veracity of the British-Australian journalist Neville Maxwell’s claim that India was the aggressor in the 1962 war with China? In a repeat of history, has India tried to, yet again, intimidate China with an act of military aggression over a territory over which they neither have the right nor the claim of ownership?

Many decades of territorial claims and counter claims have gotten us nowhere, in part because we are sympathetic to India’s security concerns. And so we should be – after all, India has been generous with us for the better part of our long journey together. If India views maintaining status quo at Doklam as crucial to their security interests, by all means we have to see that we do nothing to unduly jeopardize their interests. But usurping Bhutan’s sovereign right and responsibility to deal with China does not help India. Infact it makes China even more belligerent and uncompromising. If India seeks to find a mutually beneficial solution that is agreeable to all concerned, India should be pliable to allowing the main parties involved to engage in dialogue, and not act the bully by unceremoniously shoving Bhutan aside and start smarting with China. Doing so weakens Bhutan’s position with China, and it does not help the cause.

India needs to reassess what they did in Doklam - let not ego stand in the way of doing the right thing. For Bhutan, we cannot be seen by the Chinese to be allowing anti-China elements to mount military actions, from within Bhutnese territory.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Bury The Burial Grounds - II

One of Bhutan’s Cabinet Members a few years back had said that when the Punatsangchhu Hydro Electric Project I & II (PHEP-I and PHEP-II) come on stream and start to generate electricity, Bhutan would be propelled from a third world country to the status of a donor country. Today, a little over half a dozen years later, while that dream remains shattered, the nightmare lives on. In doing the PHEP-I and PHEP-II, this generation of Bhutanese have dug ourselves some fine burial grounds in which to bury all our hydropower dreams. Unfortunately it is not only the sweet dreams that remain crushed and trampled, but in the process we have imperiled the lives of many future generations of Bhutanese.

The dream merchants had sold us a dream so hypnotic and irresistibly alluring that even in the face of imminent economic and environmental disaster, some still believe that hydropower is the only egg we have. In the process, all our other potential eggs have remained neglected, the consequences of which we will have to face in the coming years.

We have been in a state of stupor for far too long. For sure we have been led up the garden path - not to say that it is without precedence – we have walked that path once too often. But none have been as perilous as this one. The path of doom that we are now walking has drawn international attention and scrutiny. Respected international institutions have expressed doubts about our ability to remain solvent, in the face of mounting debt. An alarmed national political party has gone as far as to call Bhutan the “Greece of South Asia”. The analogy is not very far-fetched, if not downright accurate.

Consider that each of these hydropower projects will, individually, end up costing more than the country’s entire GDP. And, when the curtains come down on these behemoths – all indications are that they are both doomed to failure – our economic enslavement would be total. Being called “Greece of South Asia” would be kindness personified.

Figures released by the government show that 80% of our debt is hydropower related. And, two of our biggest hydropower projects – PHEP-I and PHEP- II are in a perpetual state of reconstruction, rather than construction, caused by what they call “geological surprises”.

It is for this reason that I call upon our government to cut our losses and shut down these disasters – NOW - before we arrive at that point of no return. We are fast approaching that threshold beyond which it will be too late for us. It is wise to be subservient to a force that we have neither the wherewithal to withstand, nor to surmount.

As I have said in my last post, we have both the elements stacked against us – economic as well as environmental. For this post I want to restrict myself to PHEP-I and its economic aspects – plain simple mathematics.

PHEP-I was originally planned for 1,000 MW at Nu.35.00 billion

It has now been upgraded to 1,200MW at a cost that is not known as of now

1 MW is 1,000 KW

Therefore 1,200 MW works out to a total of 1,200,000 KW

Going by the level of efficiency at which the projects are being implemented, we can safely assume that the projects are unlikely to achieve 40% of their installed capacity. But let us be generous and agree that the projects will achieve an average generation of 70%.

This means that PHEP-I will generate 840,000 KW of electricity every day that we could sell to India at COST+ rates.

Now, we know that as of December 2016 the cost of PHEP-I has crossed Nu.97.00 billion from its original estimated Nu.35.00 billion. As of today, not even 50% of the project has been done. Thus it is safe to assume that the final cost, if this project will ever be done in the next 10 years, will escalate to a minimum of Nu190.00 billion, at the rate of cost escalation that has been experienced so far.

This sum ties in nicely with what the Hon’ble Prime Minister had stated during his State of the Nation speech – that the country has a debt of Nu.171.00 billion of which only Nu.34.5 billion is none-hydro. NOTE: India pays 30% of the cost of these two projects, in the form of grants. We pay 70% at 10% interest.

The following is a comparative study of the project as it was initially planned, and after its generation capacity was increased to present level. The statement shows a layman’s calculation of per KW cost of generation.

NOTE: The calculations are indicative and not accurate. It is merely to demonstrate cost escalation.

As opposed to the above, our hydropower egg basket – India – is looking at charging less than Nu.3.00 per kilowatt-hour, for their solar-generated electricity. Thermal and hydropower generation is now going out of fashion in the Indian context.

The above mathematics ignore the following:

1.  It is absolutely impossible to achieve 70% generation
2.  It is impossible to maintain generation of 70% every single day of
      its rated 12,775 days of useful life
3.  It is impossible that the plants will not require repair, replacement
     and maintenance from time to time
4.  Records from Chukha and Tala tell us that during the winter months,
     generation drops to as low as 10% of their capacity
5.  De-silting: how efficient is the design? (if this is not looked into properly
     I suspect that instead of water, the dams will be filled with silt and debris
     - reducing water storage capacity)
6.  GLOFs/flooding/insufficient water/earthquakes
7.  Huge Indian currency shortage caused by these projects
8.  Cost of decommissioning at the end of their useful life
9.  Depreciation of plant and machinery
10.  Other seen and unseen costs

The Bhutanese people are constantly reminded that we have an agreement that stipulates that India will buy all of our electricity at Cost+ prices. I suppose India will be honorable enough to keep to their part of the bargain. But what is the guarantee that they will fulfill their promise in a manner that is beneficial to us, in the face of compulsions dictated by emerging market realities?

India is already electricity surplus, way beyond their need. Hundreds of thousands of GW of solar and wind generated electricity is going to be coming on stream in the next few years. Thus, what insanity would drive India to buy our electricity at Nu.18.00+? To fulfill the promise they made to us? Not at this price levels! They have other options open to them.

In my view the situation is headed in such a direction that there is no two ways about it: India will have to advise Bhutan to shut these projects down. Doing so will demonstrate that big brother India truly has Bhutanese interest in their hearts, as they claim they have. If they do so, they will stand vindicated for what they did in Doklam – that they have acted in the best interest of Bhutan, gladly and voluntarily, and without malice to one and all.

India should demonstrate good intent by not encouraging Bhutan to continue to tread this ruinous path. A mortally wounded Bhutan with her back to the wall can turn out to be a volatile ally. Before the situation spirals out of control, India should seriously look at reorienting its Bhutan hydropower policy. It will be mutually beneficial and strategically self-serving.