India to help Bhutan develop Gelephu airport

The initial work for domestic airport of Gelephu was completed in 2012 but the airport faced several financial and operational challenges over the years….reports Asian Lite News

India and Bhutan are in talks to expand and develop Gelephu airport, located near Bhutan’s boundary with India, according to persons aware of the matter. The plan assumes importance given the Himalayan kingdom’s plans to make Gelephu a hub for economic investments in South Asia.

According to media reports in Bhutan, a master plan for the expansion of the airport has been prepared which proposes developing the airport, which currently stands at over 500 acres, by expanding its size as well as the length of the existing runway. The Airports Authority of India is in talks with Bhutan to help develop the airport, an Indian official confirmed. Talks are currently in early stages, they added.

Queries mailed to the ministry of external affairs and the Airports Authority of India went unanswered.

Gelephu has become the focus of Bhutan’s efforts to reach out to the global economy. During last year’s National Day Address, Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk laid out plans for the new Gelephu Mindfulness City.

“South Asia is experiencing an unprecedented economic transformation. This is a period of growth and a period of immense opportunities for our region, which is home to around two billion people. The land connection from Gelephu or Samdrup Jongkhar through Assam and Northeast Indian states, to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore is a vibrant economic corridor linking South Asia to Southeast Asia,” King Wangchuk had said in the course of his remarks.

The Gelephu project requires greater physical connectivity with India, through road and railway linkages. The plan to expand and develop Gelephu airport with support from India is believed to be in line with these ambitions.

The proposed Special Administrative Region (SAR) in Gelephu could reshape Bhutan’s economic landscape. The SAR will have autonomy and legal independence to secure investments and develop the 1,000 sq. km project.

Bhutan is seeking Indian investments for essential physical infrastructure, including an airport and roads, to develop the SAR. Mint had earlier reported that Bhutan is in discussions with GMR to develop the SAR, complete with infrastructure required to push the region to becoming a key economic centre.

Bhutan has four airports including Paro, Gelephu, Bathapalathang, and Yongphulla airports. Currently, the country operates all its international flights from Paro airport via state carrier Druk Air. In fact in 1968, the Indian Border Roads Organisation built an airstrip in the Paro valley, which was initially used for on-call helicopter operations by the Indian Armed Forces on behalf of the Royal Government of Bhutan.

The initial work for domestic airport of Gelephu was completed in 2012 but the airport faced several financial and operational challenges over the years. Recently, the airport received aerodrome certificate from the Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority in September 2023 for international flights.

The Airports Authority of India has provided its services in supporting aviation in other countries as well in the recent past. In 2021, the AAI had agreed to assist the Bangladesh aviation regulator in enhancing its capacity in terms of infrastructure and skilled manpower.

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