Gelephu SAR: a transformative vision for Bhutan’s economic growth and cultural harmony

Bhutan’s Gelephu evolves into a gateway connecting Bhutan to the world, balancing economic growth with cultural preservation.

Bhutan’s King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, prominently highlighted the Gelephu Mindfulness City in his recent 116th National Day address, underscoring its pivotal role in the ongoing economic transformation of South Asia. Situated in a region home to approximately two billion people, the proposed land connection from Gelephu or Samdrup Jongkhar carries extensive implications, spanning across Assam and Northeast Indian states to reach Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore. This ambitious economic corridor presents unparalleled opportunities for fostering regional growth and collaboration.
During his address, King Wangchuck shared a promising development from his recent visit to India—the Indian government’s commitment to enhancing major roads leading to Bhutan. This commitment also included plans to connect two or three of Bhutan’s border towns with railway lines, showcasing a shared commitment to fostering connectivity and economic cooperation.
At the heart of this transformative vision lies the Gelephu Special Administrative Region (SAR), conceived as an autonomous economic hub endowed with the authority to shape essential laws and policies.

 

What is SAR?

A Special Administrative Region (SAR) is a designation that grants a specific geographic area a higher degree of autonomy and special governance arrangements within the framework of a sovereign state. SARs are often established to address unique historical, cultural, or economic circumstances, allowing the designated region to have a distinct set of laws, policies, and administrative practices.

The case of the Gelephu Special Administrative Region in Bhutan is conceived as an autonomous economic hub with executive autonomy and legal independence. This means that Gelephu SAR would have the authority to formulate and implement essential laws and policies related to its economic activities, trade, and other relevant matters, somewhat independently of the central government’s direct control.
The autonomy granted to a SAR is typically a result of negotiations between the central government and local authorities, and the specific arrangements can vary widely based on the goals and characteristics of the region. The aim is often to stimulate economic development, attract foreign investment, and address regional needs while ensuring that the SAR remains an integral part of the larger national framework.

In the Gelephu project, the SAR goes beyond being merely an economic centre. It aspires to be a Mindfulness City, emphasizing conscious and sustainable businesses inspired by Bhutan’s Buddhist spiritual heritage and unique identity. The establishment of a SAR in Gelephu reflects a strategic approach to development, combining economic initiatives with cultural and environmental considerations, and it signifies a commitment to fostering a distinctive regional identity within the broader national context. With executive autonomy and legal independence, the SAR aims to attract foreign investment by offering a favourable business environment and compelling incentives.
To maintain alignment with Bhutanese culture and values, a stringent screening process for businesses and individuals coming to Gelephu will be implemented through an invitation-only approach. Covering 1000 sq km or 2,50,000 acres, the Gelephu Mindfulness City represents 2.5 per cent of Bhutan’s total surface area. The project is expected to bring substantial benefits to the entire country, necessitating significant investments in public infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and airports. The Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is expected to bring more job opportunities for the youth, offering international salary scales and access to advanced technology and skills.
King Wangchuck highlighted three immediate priority areas for supporting the Gelephu project: Energy, Connectivity, and Skills. The emphasis on expanding Bhutan’s energy sector through various sources, including solar, wind, thermal, and hydropower, aligns to create a flourishing economy while reducing the need for migration.

In describing the Gelephu project as an inflexion point and a transformative moment in history, King Wangchuck affirmed his commitment to realizing this vision. Gelephu, positioned as more than an economic centre, is poised to become a gateway connecting Bhutan to the world.

 

Impact

The establishment of the Gelephu Special Administrative Region (SAR) in Bhutan marks a pivotal moment with far-reaching impacts on both the regional and national landscapes. Economically, the SAR holds the promise of becoming a catalyst for substantial growth. By positioning itself as an autonomous economic hub, Gelephu aims to foster the development of sustainable businesses leading to increased employment opportunities and heightened economic activities, contributing to a more resilient and dynamic national economy. However, the envisioned impact extends beyond economic realms. The ambitious project necessitates significant investments in public infrastructure.
As Bhutan charts this transformative course, the SAR’s unique focus on becoming a Mindfulness City adds a distinctive layer to its impact. Rooted in Bhutan’s Buddhist spiritual heritage and cultural values, this emphasis on mindfulness in business operations aligns with the overarching philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The SAR aspires to be more than an economic centre, seeking to create a harmonious balance between economic prosperity and cultural preservation. As Gelephu evolves into a gateway connecting Bhutan to the world, balancing economic growth with cultural preservation will be paramount to ensuring a prosperous and harmonious future for the region and the nation at large.