The civil nuclear cooperation deal with the US is something the country will keep paying dearly for indefinitely into the future. The safeguards document, like the other parts of the deal, has turned out exactly as this Cassandra had warned. The long-standing American aim of roping India into the morally and functionally defunct 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime — an objective serially furthered by the December 2006 Henry J. Hyde US-India Atomic Energy Cooperation Act, the 123 Accord, and now the safeguards agreement — is now fully realized. At each step, progress was made, willy-nilly, at the expense of India’s national interests and its nuclear security imperatives.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint.
Unlike what our supposedly hard-nosed negotiators had hinted, there is absolutely no evidence in the safeguards agreement of anything other than relentless concession. “Corrective measures”, they hinted, would permit India to procure uranium for imported reactors from anywhere and by any means when faced with a cut-off of fuel supply should India test again, and even withdraw its civilian facilities from the safeguards net.
Alas, there is only a preambular mention of “corrective measures” but no indication of the action India might take should the fuel supply be disrupted. It is claimed sotto voce that India in those circumstances will approach Russia. But why would Russia be interested in bailing it out when Manmohan Singh, during his May state visit, brusquely rejected Moscow’s offer to “grandfather” new sales of uranium reactors under the 1982 Koodankulam contract? In international law, not saying clearly what a contracting party will do in case of the deal breaking down actually circumscribes options. And India is expressly barred by the agreement from withdrawing its facilities from the safeguards regime and two-thirds of the dual use Indian nuclear programme is headed into it. Under international law, only the five NPT-recognized nuclear weapon states can put nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards and remove them at will from international policing. The US has reaffirmed this right in the preamble and in Article 34(b) of the safeguards agreement it signed with IAEA. Similarly, China has trebly protected its interests in the preamble, and in Articles 26 and 34 (b)(i) & (ii) of its accord. By accepting this differential standard, India may have become a de jure signatory to the NPT, which is what was intended all along.
By the government’s own reckoning, preambles in international legal documents are worthless. The Manmohan Singh regime, it may be recalled, took great pains to belittle the preamble of the Hyde Act, which asserts that, among other things, seeking congruence of strategies with India on Iran, the “reduction and eventual elimination” of nuclear arsenals in South Asia, and restricting India’s stockpile of fuel for imported reactors to “reasonable reactor operating requirements” — the famous Obama Amendment — “shall be the policies of the US”. In the event, how can the Indian government hold the Hyde Act preamble as irrelevant to the deal but hail the preamble of the safeguards agreement as potent?
The Hyde Act preamble is as unlikely to be disregarded by the US Congress as its counterpart in the safeguards agreement is likely to be countenanced as an escape hatch for India.
The fact is, Indian negotiators have acquiesced in an agreement that, in the main, adheres faithfully to the strictures in the IAEA INFCIRC (information circular) 66/rev 2 of September 1968 outlining the safeguards system and the INFCIRC 153 of June 1972 defining the contents of safeguards agreements the agency can sign with “non-nuclear weapon states” and in the strengthened safeguards schemes (outlined, in INFCIRC 540 and “Strengthened Safeguards: Additional Protocols”).
Sovereign countries are free to negotiate any safeguards agreement. What matters is how determined a country is in protecting its interests and preserving its policy freedom. The Congress coalition government negotiated as a supplicant and with the attitude of a have-not country with little leverage and one, moreover, in a hurry to obtain a deal, any deal, and, predictably, ended up with a safeguards agreement entirely harmful to Indian national interests.
Given Manmohan Singh’s repeated undertakings in Parliament of the deal being premised on India’s winning international recognition as a nuclear weapon state and enjoying the privileges thereof, the enormity of his government’s accepting, for all intents and purposes, a nuclear non-weapon state status for India is yet to sink in. The financial resources that could have been invested to accelerate the delivery of indigenous breeder and thorium reactor technologies — something the US, China and others have always feared will endow India with genuine energy independence and too much power and, by this deal, have pre-empted — will now be diverted into importing reactors.
With the growing foreign uranium stake (sales, services, fuel supply and commissions) in the economy and polity, India’s testing option will be rendered progressively thin and theoretical. Without further testing, the country’s nuclear strategic forces will continue to feature untested and unproven thermonuclear armaments that lack credibility. In time, weapons-making skills and capability will be eroded and the country will be at the mercy of any country willing to call India’s nuclear bluff. Why China, it could even be a weak and lowly Pakistan equipped with proven Chinese nuclear weapons.
Bharat Karnad is professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. His latest book, India’s Nuclear Policy, is to be published by Praeger in the US this fall. Comment at email@example.com