What had we each learned from our separate visits, I wondered. Did our learnings differ?
Bhutan is the only power-surplus country in South Asia. And it has so far only exploited six percent of its hydro potential (23,760 MW), with mega projects (just one will produce more than 1,000 MW) coming on stream soon. Bhutan has a small population the size of Colombo, 0.7 million people. It cannot consume all this electricity; it is for export.
Except in winter, when the flow lessens and the run-of-the-river plants cannot produce at full capacity, 80 percent of the electricity is exported to India under long-term contracts. Electricity is the highest export earner for Bhutan today, thanks to good and timely decisions by the government, something that cannot be said about the power sector in Sri Lanka.
Should one consider the Sri Lankan situation to befundamentally different since our hydro is almost tapped out? Or should one think about the lessons that could be applied to making Sri Lanka a regional energy hub?Should one think about interconnecting Sri Lanka’s grid to the South Indian grid, so that power could flow back and forth, like it does between Bhutan and India? Bhutan does not only export to India; in the winter, when the turbines shut down for lack of water, power flows in the other direction in some areas.
But Bhutan has hydro to sell. What energy does Sri Lanka have to export? The promise of cheap coal-based base-load power in the near-term is fading, givenproblems with the 300 MW Chinese plant in Norochchalai and the glacial pace of building the 500 MW Indian plant in Sampur.
My thoughts went to nuclear?Could the objections raised to the Kudankulam nuclear plant across the Palk Strait have been worded differently? Would it have made more sense to seek Sri Lankan participation in safety monitoring, not only of Kudankulam but also of Kalpakkam, older, based on Indian expertise and a greater safety threat? That does not constitute an endorsement of Kudankulam. Kudankulamis designed by Russians, the people responsible for Chernobyl.
Was the Kudankulam controversy a missed opportunity? Could we have opened up discussions on a nuclear plant located in the sparsely populated North East Sri Lanka that could provide desperately needed energy to feedthe rapidly growing economies of Sri Lanka and South India? Today, we live with the possibility that an accident in Kalpakkam or Kudankulam will coat us in radioactive ash without enjoying any of the benefits of nuclear power.
Since we cannot realistically expect the removal of nuclear plants from across the Palk Strait, we might as well join India in ensuring the highest standards of safety and in gaining the benefits of cheap and carbon-neutral power. Internationalizingnuclear safety regulation may help the Government of India assuage the concerns of the reasonable core of the anti-nuclear protestors (and give discredited former CM Karunanidhi something to talk about other than the breaking up of Sri Lanka).
The Bhutan power sector holds many lessons for regional integration. Butsome may have concerns about Bhutan’seconomic relations compromising national sovereignty.
India finances the construction of most of Bhutan’s hydro power plants, supplies key professionals both during construction and operation, supplies the bulk of workers needed for construction, and then buys most of the electricity that is produced. The plants are handed over to the Bhutanese government when the construction loans are paid off.
This is little different from the model used by the government of Sri Lanka when it contracts Chinese firms to build its mega projects, except for the fact that Chinese mega projects like the Hambantota Harbordo not seem to generate revenue even years after their ceremonial inaugurations. Perhaps the Minister is not entirely happy with our current practicesand values sovereignty over edifice.
Over the years Bhutan has become increasingly dependent on hydro exports to India. Its people are living well thanks to earnings from hydro exports. But are the compromises to sovereignty implicit in current Bhutanese economic policies worth it?
For example, Bhutan is in the midst of a motor-vehicle boom. But every vehicle that is imported (they are all imported) creates demand for fuel and parts. All these imports must, over the long term, be balanced by exports. The country is dependent on those who buy its exports (India, predominantly) and those who supply its imports (India, followed by Korea, Japan, etc.).
Irrespective, the people seem happy to be able to get around in a sparsely populated and difficult terrain. The country is reported to have 93 vehicles per 1,000 people. Despite a considerable head start, Sri Lanka has only 66 per 1,000 people using the comparable, conventional definition of motor vehicle that excludes two- and three-wheelers. When those are included, Sri Lanka has 198 vehicles per 1,000 people.
The Elections Commission in Bhutan is very powerful, unlike our Elections Commissioner who can only complain of stress when his impotence is pointed out. The ruling party advantage is more or less nullified in Bhutan by the requirement that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet have to relinquish power for the duration of the campaign. During that period the country is governed by an interim government headed by the Chief Justice. One can only wonder what a Sri Lankan politician in power thinks about such an arrangement.
The Constitution of Bhutan, like that of Sri Lanka, provides a special place for Buddhism. Article 3 states that “Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, which promotesthe principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassionand tolerance.” It further states that “It shall be the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the countrywhile also ensuring that religion remains separate from politicsin Bhutan. Religious institutions and personalities shall remainabove politics.”
Bhutan’s Constitution has been interpreted as prohibiting not only the holding of political office by the Sangha, but also voting (but they can drive), indicating a different set of values.
Given our common problems of managing ethnicity and national identity, many would be curious about how the Royal Government dealt with its Nepali/Hindu minority in the 1990s. The Royal Government imposed language and dress codes for all citizens and penalized those who declined to follow the rules. Even today, no citizen can enter a government office if not attired in formal Bhutanese dress. Competence in the imposed national language of Dzongkha is mandatory for entry to the civil service.
The above national-identity-creating measures were accompanied by registration of citizens. Many in southern Bhutan could not provide documentation to establish the required length of residence and property ownership and had to return to Nepal. This resulted in refugee camps that held 107,000 people at the peak.
The parallels with our recent experience in resolving ethnic conflicts may cause one to ask how the Royal Government insulated itself from the criticismsnow faced by the Sri Lanka Government. Not only was Bhutan not the subject of human-rights resolutions, it managed to position itself as an exemplar of a new and caring model of governance, exemplified by the concept of Gross National Happiness. How did Bhutan pulloff this spectacular success of perception management, without a proper foreign service or a Unit of Strategy and Perception Management like we do?
A cynic may describe Bhutan’s achievement as one of the greatest feats of diplomatic legerdemain: presenting a boldly innovative and memorably branded concept to divert attention away from a tough but necessary nation-building effort. Why isour government incapable of such a strategy? Why is it stuck in reactive, defensive mode?
Secret of success?
Nepal, the other Himalayan state, also has enormous hydro potential. But it gives its people blackouts and brownouts instead of the benefits of export earnings. It is mired in political gridlock while Bhutan enjoys double-digit growth. Is Bhutan’ssecret of success its unique mix of good governance, strong national identity and judicious balancing of national sovereignty and regional economic integration?
The Land of the Thunder Dragon, as Bhutanis known by its people, has many lessons for Sri Lankaincluding on becoming a regional energy hub.