Sunday, November 19, 2006


Senate bill creates tough barriers

New Delhi, Nov. 18: The passage of the enabling bill by the US Senate to give effect to the controversial nuclear deal can only put the Indian government in an excruciating dilemma. Far from removing any of the objections spelled out by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Parliament, the senators have added two more grating conditions on India, including a bar on building strategic fuel reserves that knocks the bottom out of the Prime Minister’s stated rationale for wanting to import power reactors perpetually dependent on imported fuel.

But even without the new additions, India’s objections as delineated by the Prime Minister on August 17, 2006 remain above the red line he drew. And to make matters worse, a lot of what India finds disagreeable is common to the rival bills passed by the House and Senate. Underscoring the government’s quandary is the fact that the final bill to emerge from a joint Senate-House conference is unlikely to meet India’s bottom-line as spelled out by the Prime Minister in Parliament, under pressure from the Left and the Opposition.

The joint conference will be held to reconcile differences in the two bills, not to eliminate the common elements contained in them. Several of the conditionalities India finds odious, being common to both the bills, will thus survive the reconciliation process. Yet the US legislative and executive effort seems to be to reap the benefits from the deal while putting the onus on India for its eventual failure or non-implementation.

That is why the Senate paid no heed to New Delhi’s stated concerns that the proposed legislation is loaded with unacceptable conditionalities. US big-business lobbying has already commenced to use the deal’s “progress” to win billions of dollars worth of Indian arms contracts — a quid pro quo that New Delhi had promised in mid-2005.

The latest Obama Amendment to the Senate Bill stops India from accumulating fuel for imported reactors, negating the Prime Minister’s solemn commitment to secure for India an “uninterrupted supply of fuel” and the “right to build up strategic reserves of nuclear fuel over the lifetime of India’s reactors.” Such a right is necessary in order to avoid a repeat of the Tarapur-like situation when Washington cut off all fuel supply in 1979 to the US-built plant near Mumbai in response to India’s 1974 nuclear test.

But the Obama Amendment — inserted in the bill’s Title I — limits fuel supply to an imported reactor’s operating needs, as opposed to prospective needs in the form of a lifespan reserve. It states: “It is the policy of the United States that any nuclear power reactor fuel reserve provided to the government of India for use in safeguarded civilian nuclear facilities should be commensurate with reasonable reactor operating requirements.”

The Senate bill already carries another clause stipulating a halt to all fuel supply and nuclear cooperation in the event India tested a nuclear device. That clause remains despite the Prime Minister’s assertion that “there is no question of India being bound by a law passed by a foreign legislature”. In justifying his decision to buy high-priced reactors dependent on low-enriched uranium fuel from outside despite the bitter Tarapur experience, the Prime Minister had touted what he called America’s “important assurance” to permit India to stockpile fuel for the imported reactors’ lifespan.

In addition to the Obama Amendment, the Senate has inserted a new precondition through the Harkin Amendment stipulating a prior presidential certification that “India is fully and actively participating in US and international efforts to dissuade, sanction, and contain Iran for its nuclear programme consistent with United Nations Security Council resolutions”. This goes beyond the UN mandate because no resolution has been passed till date to either “sanction” or “contain” Iran.

Having made the deal the centrepiece of his foreign policy, the Prime Minister is now likely to get a final version that not only breaches the terms of the July 18, 2005 accord, but also falls short of the benchmarks he articulated in Parliament three months ago. Yet, after the vast political capital he has invested, he seems loath to give up on the deal.

In recognition of the dilemma he faces, the Prime Minister has reacted very cautiously, pointing out the simple truth: “We still have a long way to go before nuclear cooperation between India and the United States becomes a living reality.” Few in his own party had been willing to support his exuberance over the deal.

The Prime Minister’s caution also flows from Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s unambiguous stance. “Nothing will be accepted which is outside the July 18 agreement between the two countries,” she declared. “We seriously hope that once it’s reconciled that all elements in it that are not acceptable will be eliminated. Only then will we welcome it.”

The reality, however, is that since it was unveiled 17 months ago, the deal has been mangled beyond recognition. Yet the yardstick by which the final US bill will be measured by the government is not the principles enshrined in the original July 2005 accord but India’s operational requirements.

These requirements, in the words of the Prime Minister in Parliament, include the following:

* The “full” lifting of US civil nuclear export controls against India. This means the “removal of restrictions on all aspects of cooperation and technology transfers pertaining to civil nuclear energy ranging from nuclear fuel, nuclear reactors, to reprocessing spent fuel”. Lest this bottomline not be understood, it was further clarified: “We will not agree to any dilution that would prevent us from securing the benefits of full civil nuclear cooperation as amplified above.”

Legally, what is on offer to India, however, is restricted civil trade subject to tight congressional oversight. Also, the proposed legislation does not allow the transfer of enrichment, reprocessing and heavy-water technologies and items, or even allow India to reprocess, with its own technology, the spent fuel from imported reactors.

* “We will accept only IAEA safeguards on the nuclear facilities, in a phased manner ... only when all nuclear restrictions on India have been lifted.”

Under both the Senate and House versions of the enabling bill, however, such international inspections are to predate, not follow, the lifting of several, but not all, civil nuclear restrictions against India. But in parallel to the IAEA inspections, the US is to set up its own end-use verification system in India.

* The deal should not be conditioned on India securing an annual US presidential certification that it is in full compliance with its non-proliferation and other commitments, because that would have the effect “to diminish a permanent waiver authority into an annual one.” Moreover, such annual certification “would introduce an element of uncertainty regarding future cooperation” and this provision thus would be “unacceptable”.

The Senate, like the House before, chose to simply to ignore that protestation. There are also other objectionable conditionalities in both the Senate and House Bills, like getting India to formally bind itself to the rules of the Missile Technology Control Regime and participate in the controversial Proliferation Security Initiative. Both the bills decree that the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group carve out an exception for India only “by consensus”, thereby arming adversarial China with leverage on the deal’s future.


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