Shake off the nuclear noose round our neck

Strange are the ways of global politics. In 1974 the US, along with Canada, imposed nuclear embargoes on India, which had just conducted its first nuclear explosion, and took the lead in founding the London club -- later to become the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) -- to quarantine India. In 1992 it pressured the NSG to adopt a set of “Export Guidelines” that made those embargoes universal, thereby blocking fresh contracts even with countries such as Russia and France. In 1998 it imposed fresh sanctions on New Delhi after the second Pokhran blasts. Come July 2005 and the same US, in a dramatic reversal of the policy pursued for over 30 years, starts nuclear handshake with the same India and in three years it brings the latter back into the global nuclear mainstream by pressuring the NSG to bend its rules and lift sanctions on India, a denounced NPT holdout!

What did the trick? A couple of closely connected developments: India’s emergence as a very lucrative market for nuclear trade (thanks to her transition to a higher growth trajectory with growing energy appetite and -- this is seldom mentioned in the official and unofficial press -- her ambitious nuclear weaponisation programme) and the altered, post-9/11 US perception of India as a junior partner in the strategy of world domination nicknamed “war against terror.”

The economic motive was manifested, inter alia, in U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s request in the immediate aftermath of the “Vienna victory” that India should not go to the world nuclear market till the 123 agreement was finally passed, so that American companies were not disadvantaged. Within days, it became clear that a grateful New Delhi was overly eager to serve the Americans. William Burns, U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs, said before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on September 18:

“The Indian government has provided the United States with a strong Letter of Intent, stating its intention to purchase reactors with at least 10,000 Mega Watts worth of new power generation capacity from U.S. firms (this implies India expending about Rs. 280,000 crore -- @ 28 crore per MW -- of Indian money to bail out the US nuclear industry – A Sen). India has committed to devote at least two sites to U.S. firms. India also has committed to adhere to the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (this means that in the case of any disaster, the Indian Government will take over all liabilities from the suppliers and the operators -- A Sen).”

As for India’s strategic entanglement, that has already been proved in ample measure by the frequent joint military manoeuvres with the US on an expanding scale, the foot-dragging on the Iran gas pipeline project, and similar other developments. We will return to this point later in this note, but let us first concern ourselves with a more urgent question: what do we as Indians get -- and give -- through the Indo-US nuclear deal (assuming that US congressional ratification will be obtained probably this month or sometime later) and the IAEA-NSG approvals?

A “Clean and Unconditional Waiver”?

Yes, we will accept nothing short of that -- roared Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar and other high officials during the run-up to the NSG meeting, duly echoed by the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. But a series of shocking revelations in the first ten days of September, followed by a number of aftershocks, brought out the wisdom of the old saying: empty vessels sound much.

“I confirm that there is nothing in these agreements which prevents us from further nuclear tests if warranted by our national security concerns”, the PM declared during the debate preceding the July trust vote. The January 2008 State Department letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on the other hand, states that India has been left in no doubt that if it conducted a test, the US could at its discretion suspend or terminate all supplies. It is also important to remember that Pranab Mukherjee’s commitment of “voluntary, unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing and non-proliferation” was made following a specific “suggestion” from the US negotiators in Vienna. Though nothing new, it was officially taken as a “basis” for the waiver. Finally, the reworded text on which the NSG put its seal of approval -- reluctantly and under the heaviest possible US pressure -- reconfirms the real nature of the agreement. When read with the national statements issued by Austria, China, Germany, Ireland, Japan and others, the text indicates that member countries are expected to consult among themselves and terminate nuclear trade with India if it resumes testing. Technically this is not automatic - every country is free to decide on its own - but records of recent past strongly indicate that the NSG as a cartel would act in unison in such an eventuality, especially if the US takes the lead.

The protagonists of nuclear deal have stated that in case the US terminates the supply of fuel, it would be magnanimous enough to find India alternative sources. The State Department letter clarifies that the US gave fuel supply assurances only “to guard against disruption of fuel supply to India that might occur through no fault of India’s own,” e.g., trade war, market disruptions, etc. -- and that such assurances are “not ... meant to insulate India against the consequences of a nuclear explosive test or a violation of non-proliferation commitments”. It also states that in the latter cases (involving a nuclear test or other violation) India would have no right to take “corrective measures” against fuel-supply disruptions.

What type of equipments and technologies are we going to get, and under what conditions? Given the technical nitty-gritty involved, let us take the help of an expert analyst. R Ramachandran writes in Frontline, Sept 13-26, 2008:

“Full Civil Nuclear Cooperation: This is a key part of the Joint Statement of July 18, 2005. However, it does not define what “full” implies, and the interpretations of the two sides have differed right from the beginning. The Indian interpretation of the phrase was articulated by the Prime Minister in his statement on August 17, 2006, according to which this implied technologies related to “all aspects of the complete nuclear fuel cycle” (emphasis added), including those related to enrichment and reprocessing. The U.S. negotiators have, on the other hand, made it clear in the congressional hearings of November 2005 and April 2006 that it could not include enrichment, reprocessing and heavy water technologies - termed as Sensitive Nuclear Technologies (SNTs) - because of domestic policies, and this is reflected in the Hyde Act as well. Significantly, the 123 Agreement of August 3, 2007, dropped the word “all”. The government was forced to back down on this, but the Prime Minister maintained in his August 13, 2007, statement that the concept of full civil nuclear cooperation had been clearly enshrined in the agreement. While now acknowledging that the U.S. had a long-standing policy of not transferring the SNTs, he added that the agreement provided for such transfers through a “forward-looking language”, which required an amendment to the agreement.

Answer to Q. 4 in the letter, (the US State Department letter – A Sen) however, gives the U.S. perspective: “[W]hile the proposed U.S.-India Agreement provides for transfer of items in question, as a framework agreement it does not compel any such transfers and as a matter of policy the U.S. does not transfer dual-use items for use in sensitive nuclear facilities.” Answer to Q. 5 goes on to say: “Consistent with standing U.S. policy, the U.S. government will not assist India in the design, construction or operation of SNTs through the transfer of dual-use items, whether under the Agreement or outside the Agreement.” The administration further added in its answer to Q. 6: “The Administration does not plan to negotiate an amendment to the proposed U.S.-India Agreement to transfer to India sensitive nuclear facilities or critical components to such facilities.” Response to Q. 9 further clarifies that only if India developed facilities as part of a bilateral or a multinational programme could such dual-use transfers be considered as per exceptions provided by the Hyde Act…” (NUCLEAR DEAL: Hidden side)

So cooperation will be far from complete. By now it is clear that there are no legally binding assurances on the US for fuel supplies but India has accepted the IAEA safeguards in perpetuity. To make matters worse for us, the NSG members privately agreed in Vienna not to sell sensitive technologies to India in the “foreseeable future”, said a Washington Post report. Actually this understanding helped persuade several sceptical member states to support the waiver. While such agreements are not binding, the Post and some other analysts like Siddharth Varadarajan report that NSG countries were planning to “tighten up” the rules on such sales in near future (rather than causing a diplomatic rupture at this moment).

Foreign Policy Implications

During the period since July 2005, while the nuclear deal was being negotiated, Indian foreign policy came under increasing US influence: the vote against Iran in IAEA, downplaying the Russia-China-India trilateral dialogue format while upgrading relations with Israel, and so on. And why not? As the Hyde act explicitly states and other US statements/documents reiterate, a fundamental condition of the 123 agreement is that Indian foreign policy has to be congruent with that of the US. We can already see this even more glaringly than in the past. We shall limit ourselves to just a couple of examples.

Promoting India as a counterweight to China -- a prospective member of a planned “Asian NATO” -- has been an important US consideration for lifting sanctions on its nuclear activities. Not surprisingly, we saw a lot of China-bashing during and just after the NSG negotiations. Taking their cue from the National Security Adviser MK Narayanan and others, corporate media managers cried themselves hoarse complaining about China’s alleged behind-the-scene manoeuvres aimed at obstructing the waiver in favour of India. Now it is true that the People’s Daily lambasted Washington for its “multiple standards” in regard to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. But the criticism was focused on the US. In Vienna, having aired its views, China moved on to support the consensus rather than exercise its prerogative to block it.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi therefore stood on solid ground when he told CNN-IBN during his recent visit to India: “facts speak louder ... than some reports”. Significantly, the Indian Foreign Minister willy-nilly endorsed this statement within a few days, by which time the government’s immediate purpose -- deflecting public attention from the core issue of India paying a disproportionately high price for the NSG waiver -- had been served.

Another country with which India’s relations are coming very manifestly under the US shadow happens to be Iran. The Hyde Act contained several clauses stipulating India’s cooperation with US policy on Iran. Now in the report to the Congress pursuant to Section 104(c) of the Hyde Act, the Bush administration cited India’s votes against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency as part of “several steps” New Delhi has taken “to support the U.S.” in its efforts to “dissuade, isolate, and, if necessary, sanction and contain Iran”. The Presidential Determination also states: “India will now support the United States and international efforts to prevent the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to any State that does not already possess full-scale, functioning enrichment or reprocessing plants.” Evidently, India has succumbed to US pressure to deny a very friendly country the right to fuel enrichment (which cannot be equated with nuclear weaponisation) it has as a signatory to the NPT under Article IV of that charter.

Better, Wiser Alternatives

Rather than bartering out our national sovereignty in this way, we could easily take recourse to several other options for meeting our energy needs. For instance, we can speed up the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project, which have a much shorter gestation period and would have been a far cheaper source of energy.

According to the joint statement of Nepalese and Indian Prime Ministers issued recently in New Delhi, the two countries will urgently tap the vast water resources in the region for generation of hydroelectricity and other purposes like irrigation and flood control. Sincere efforts in this direction will, in addition to easing our power problems, yield a very important political and diplomatic gain: genuine friendship and close cooperation with the rising republican Nepal.

Given its climatic conditions, our country has a vast potential for generating solar and wind energy. We have developed good technological expertise too in these areas and with further research costs can be brought down considerably for these cleanest sources of energy. The same applies to coal-based thermal power, where a lot of progress can be made in terms of pollution control and capacity utilisation if improved technology (which is already in use in the US and other countries) is pressed into service.

And if we wish to keep the nuclear option open, or if at all we have to use a limited amount of nuclear energy, why should we not concentrate on the thorium-based fast breeder reactors or FBRs, given our vast reserves of this particular fuel? This option, like that of emphasising renewable energy sources, would also help promote indigenous research and development.

In sum, the less we look to the US and other big powers for technology, equipments and materials, and the more we rely on our huge natural and human resources, the more shall we achieve self-reliance not only in generation of energy, but in science and technology and in overall economic development, for energy lies at the heart of progress in agriculture, industry and services. What is required for this is a clear, innovative vision -- a progressive, pro-people, environment-friendly national energy policy.

Their Way, Our Way

But this is something we can never expect from the present dispensation. On the contrary, it has come up with plans to amend existing laws to allow private, including foreign, players into the lucrative field of atomic power generation and to reformulate the national energy policy on that basis. No wonder, both American and Indian Chambers of commerce have greeted the winds of change and drawn up detailed plans of huge investments in this high margin sector. What is worse, the UPA government has deliberately misinformed and misled the nation in numerous ways. The US State Department letter, which found mention in the Washington Post in May and July, was certainly no secret to the Indian government. But the important document was kept secret by common consent of the “strategic partners” to keep the Indian public in the dark, lest the US-India accord should run into rougher weather. This was considered necessary because the authentic US clarifications give the lie to almost every assurance made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his colleagues to the people of India. They also kept us in the dark regarding India’s “Letter of Intent” referred to above (in this case responsible ministers were saying that India had no particular preference for US and was ready to start nuclear trade talks with France and Russia immediately) and irritants like the ongoing dispute between India and the U.S. over the American claim to having certain “vested rights” over the Tarapur reactors despite the expiration of the 1963 bilateral agreement.

Yes, such are the ways of world politics -- the ways of big business, big media and big powers. But this is not our way. The aam admi has a very different set of interests and concerns. So the only course left to us is to further intensify popular movement and that at three levels. One, expose the real worth of the nuclear deal -- with all its bilateral and multilateral ramifications -- as an egoistic exercise in satisfying the ruling elite’s chauvinist supremacist ambitions under US tutelage and its greed for mega profits, with little to contribute by way of actually meeting India’s energy needs. Two, counterpunch and deflate the nuclear euphoria to bring to the forefront the struggles against burning problems like price rise and pauperisation. Three, intensify the battle to scrap the nuclear deal and the Indo-US strategic partnership and defeat any government that follows the pro-US course.

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