Vinod Mubayi and Daya Varma


With the formation of a joint committee by the Congress and the left parties charged with reviewing the Indo-US nuclear deal, the overt political rift among the members of the UPA has been temporarily papered over, pending the output of the deliberations of the committee. Furthermore, the somewhat positive statements of Jyoti Basu and Buddhadev Bhattacharjee regarding nuclear energy have revealed differences in the left’s own camp. How this will play out over the next few months and what impact it will have on the survival of the UPA regime and the prospects for fresh elections remains uncertain.


However, the opposition to the deal on the part of the broader left in India, which includes a diverse set of anti-nuclear power activists, arms and conflict control advocates, and a section of environmentalists, continues unabated. This opposition falls into several categories: (1) the deal will endanger Indian sovereignty by making India an appendage of the imperial superpower, the US. (2) By making a special exemption for India, a country that has refused to sign the non-proliferation treaty and which is also known to have nuclear weapons, the deal will shred the NPT and encourage other nations to develop nuclear weapons; besides it will promote a nuclear-arms race in Asia. (3) It is a folly to encourage nuclear power, which is inherently risky and dangerous; it is also extremely uneconomic, especially in India, in comparison with coal with which India is plentifully endowed. (4) Lastly, another argument for opposing the deal is supposed to originate from within the Indian nuclear establishment, viz. that the deal would encourage imports of western reactor technologies and derail India’s own indigenous three-stage plan for nuclear energy development.


The Indian left assisted by a section of the international left has concluded that by agreeing to the 123 nuclear Deal India has surrendered its sovereignty and become a part of the US-led belligerent alliance. (The ultra right in India has taken, in effect, a similar position for purely opportunistic reasons; it would have been only too happy to have concluded such a deal if it had been offered when the BJP-led NDA was in power). Almost all of these arguments flow from the premise that since the US is a bellicose, imperialist nation, any deal with it carries a price, which India cannot afford and should not be willing to pay. The most simplistic version of this argument has been advanced by the economist Jean Drèze (The Hindu, September 7, 2007) who borrows the idea from Gopinath Mohanty’s novel Paraja. Dreze constructs an analogy to show that India is like a destitute tribal borrowing money from the loan shark US to land up in perpetual slavery. But does this analogy hold water? It is known that the US is the most heavily indebted country in the world and has no longer any money to lend. It doled out money during the post-WW II Marshall plan but Japan and Germany, the main recipients of its “generosity”, emerged as major world economies rather than as perpetual servitors of the US. The 123 deal is mainly about permitting India access to the international market for fuel and technology for nuclear power generation, which was suspended after Pokharan I, and India’s refusal to sign the NPT. Despite what some editorial writers like Ashok Mitra seem to think, it is unlikely that the deal has been fashioned at the behest of the US nuclear-military-industrial complex to allow it to sell to India its “surplus capacity” of obsolete and dangerous technologies like nuclear reactors for which there is no longer any demand in the US. It is somewhat ironic that Mitra’s article appeared almost at the same time as an application for a license to build and operate two new nuclear power plants in south Texas, the first such application in over 2 decades, was placed before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It illustrates how little grounded in reality some of the arguments made by the left are.   


In the course of commercial relations, India has entered into many deals with U.S. companies, including those belonging to what is known as the military-industrial complex. These deals involve large amounts of strategic military hardware and software. India has also conducted joint military exercises with the US defense establishment (for the record it should be noted that China has also conducted military exercises with the US). Moreover, India has entered into many military deals with Israel, a key arm of the U.S. Empire. What is so special about nuclear power generation technology that an agreement related to it can threaten the survivability of the government while other more consequential strategic agreements related to the military do not appear to attract such opposition?


While it is no doubt prudent to be suspicious of any major deal with the US and it can be dangerous to become friends of the US as Saddam Hussein learnt to his cost, many countries seem eager to enter into a relationship with the US, either for economic or other reasons, as, for example, Vietnam, which was mercilessly devastated by the US but is now eager to mend fences with its former opponent. 


The environmentalists who are allergic to the word ‘nuclear’ in any context, civil or military, are at least consistent in their opposition even if they are wrong-headed on this particular issue, in our opinion. However, their opposition leads them to offer unconditional support to the NPT, which India, along with some other countries, had consistently refused to sign on the grounds that it is discriminatory by dividing the world into nuclear haves and have-nots. This position of the Indian environmental crusaders brings them into a de facto alliance with various arms-control supporters in the U.S. and other, mainly western, nuclear-have countries that support NPT despite its outright discriminatory character. The moral position of the latter was expressed many years ago by the satirical-songwriter and performer Tom Lehrer in his song “Whose Next”: “First we got the bomb/and that was good/’cause we love peace/and motherhood/Russia got the bomb/but that’s okay/the balance of power/is maintained that way/Whose Next?”


The environmentalists’ position also assumes an inevitable link between knowledge of nuclear power technology and development of nuclear weapons; one leads to the other. In the previous month’s issue of the Bulletin the falsity of this argument was established on factual grounds by giving examples of countries that operate nuclear power plants but have shown no interest in nuclear weapons. In the case of India, it can be argued that the opposite is true, viz. that India’s development of nuclear weapons has significantly hampered its nuclear power development by cutting off access to the international market for fuel and technology.  It can also be argued, at least in principle, that if the deal is followed by its ratification by the International Atomic Energy Agency and agreement by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), it will tend to exert an indirect influence on India to refrain from further development of nuclear weapons. Because if India carries out more bomb tests, then the U.S. and other suppliers in the NSG could in principle bring pressure to delay or obstruct or hinder fuel supplies on account of their domestic laws, even though the agreement explicitly permits India to develop fuel reserves to guard against this eventuality. The left parties may see this indirect impact as an imperialist intrusion but in this they part company with the environmentalists who would presumably be happy to see as many future restrictions as possible on India’s ability to further develop nuclear weapons.


Both the left and the environmentalists in India use emotional words such as “risky” and “dangerous” in referring to nuclear energy but they omit to mention: risky and dangerous in comparison to what?  In India, by far the major source of electric power generation is domestic coal.  The risks and dangers of coal to both the workers who mine coal and the public that is exposed to the noxious and hazardous emissions to the air, water and land from coal combustion in power plants are well known and there is now an increasing awareness of the impact of burning coal on the global climate.  But the Indian environmental campaigners choose not to highlight these facts, as they would detract from the impression they wish to create regarding nuclear energy.  Arguments that nuclear generated electricity is totally “uneconomic” in India compared to coal generated power are based on calculations that ignore all externalities of coal use.


Another argument makes the claim that the deal is not supported by the Indian nuclear establishment but is mostly the brainchild of assorted pro-U.S. elements in India’s Planning Commission and its foreign policy establishment. According to this argument, this deal will divert India’s indigenously developed three-stage policy in the nuclear power generation sector (pressurized heavy reactors based on domestic uranium sources, fast-breeder reactors using reprocessed fuel and ‘breeding’ more fuel, followed by reactors utilizing India’s abundant thorium reserves) to one dependent on the ‘foreign’ technology of light-water reactors using ‘foreign’-enriched uranium supplies and thus lead to India’s ‘dependence’ on foreign technology and fuel instead of its own hard-won domestic technology. At this stage, all one can say is that signing the deal does not have to automatically lock India into any particular reactor technology or force it to buy anything from anybody if it is uneconomic, unviable, or does not make technological sense from India’s standpoint.  By bringing in a wider set of suppliers and technology options, the best thing the deal can do is to make decision-making in India’s power sector and, in particular, the nuclear power generation sector, more transparent and understandable than what it is now.


Within this overall context, what does the 123 Deal mean for India and for the US? From the debate and dissensions within the US Congress and Senate and the reservations of previous US administrations including that of Clinton, it is obvious that the US made important concessions in agreeing to the 123 Deal. It may be true that Bush is friendlier to India than any previous US President, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says, but it is also true that the US is facing more international isolation under Bush than it ever did in the past. Other than killing over a million Iraqis and an unknown number of Afghans, the US has achieved only failure so far in Iraq and Afghanistan. So one could claim that the US needs India for its own reasons even if India is a non-signatory to the NPT.  On its part, India too needs the US, for technology needed for its growing economy but also for other reasons. In that sense the 123 Deal is one of a mutual compromise to accommodate each country’s interests. 

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