Washington: The US House of Representatives on Saturday passed a civilian nuclear pact with India that lifts a three-decade-old-ban on civilian nuclear trade with the country.
The agreement, passed by a 298-117 vote, will now head to the Senate for its vote, but it was unclear if it would be passed before Congress adjourns ahead of the 4 November elections.
Signed by US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005, the deal offers India access to Western technology and cheap atomic energy provided it allows UN nuclear inspections of some of its nuclear facilities.
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Bush on Saturday congratulated the House on the vote. “The passage of this legislation by the House is another major step forward in achieving the transformation of the US-India relationship,” he said, urging the Senate now to adopt the Bill.
But the deal has faced criticism from opponents who argue that India, which first tested an atomic weapon in 1974, is not a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, or NPT.
Representative Edward Markey, a senior member of the House energy and commerce committee, denounced the vote, saying in a statement: “This is a terrible Bill that threatens the future of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.” He argued during a late night debate on Friday that opposing the Bill did not mean opposing India.
“This is a debate about Iran. This is a debate about North Korea, about Pakistan, about Venezuela, about any other country in the world that harbours the goal of acquiring nuclear weapons,” he said.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to allay any lasting concerns, saying the legislation would boost US oversight on any US civilian nuclear assistance to India.
She welcomed the vote saying in a statement that the accord “furthers our countries’ strategic relationship while balancing nuclear non-proliferation concerns and India’s growing energy needs.
Democrat representative Joseph Crowley said Saturday’s vote was a “historic moment”. “We are uniting the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies in an effort to expand peaceful and responsible development of nuclear technology,” he said.
The House foreign affairs committee member also recognized “the Indian American community for their incredible advocacy and efforts to educate members of Congress on the importance of this agreement and the US-India relationship.”
The agreement had long been stalled in Congress, and on Thursday Bush told the visiting Singh that he was working hard to get it passed as quickly as possible.
New Delhi, which is critically short of energy to fuel its booming economy and its burgeoning population of 1.1 billion people, is looking at investments worth billions of dollars in its power sector.
The draft Bill proposed by the White House says: “Civil nuclear cooperation between the US and India pursuant to the agreement will offer major strategic and economic benefits to both countries, including enhanced energy security.” It also promised “an ability to rely more extensively on an environmentally-friendly energy source, greater economic opportunities and more robust non-proliferation efforts.”
If the Senate now endorses the agreement, it would finally end a three decade-old ban on nuclear trade with India imposed after it carried out its first nuclear test in 1974 and refused to sign the NPT.
But New Delhi, which agreed to open some of its reactors for inspection, now has approval to buy fuel and technology from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, or NSG, which controls global atomic trade.
Washington spearheaded the efforts that led this month in the Vienna-based NSG lifting a global ban on trade with India.