Will M J Akbar guide India to a course correction in US-India civil nuclear deal?

Can Akbar steer India's Nuclear Policy?

Can Akbar steer India's Nuclear Policy?
Can Akbar steer India's Nuclear Policy?

[dropcap color=”#008040″ boxed=”yes” boxed_radius=”8px” class=”” id=””]T[/dropcap]he most important thing about Tuesday’s cabinet reshuffle and appointment of new ministers is the entry of M J Akbar into the Union Council of Ministers and that too as Minister of State for External Affairs. Akbar is a scholar par excellence and has got his own views about the world in which we live. He is no ordinary politician. When the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed the civil nuclear deal with the United States in 2005, Akbar was the first journalist/editor in the country to sound the warning note. Though he was heading the Deccan Chronicle owned by the Reddys of Hyderabad, who are mere courtesans of 10 Janpath, Akbar wrote very boldly that the India-US nuclear deal was against the sovereignty of the country and would be of no help to India which was struggling to overcome the energy deficit haunting the nation.

Events of the last decade has proved Akbar’s apprehensions were fully correct. The Indo-US civil nuclear deal signed between India and USA is a win-win situation for the USA. It reminds one of the famous “Heads I win and Tails You lose” adage. The BJP which has been campaigning against the India-US civil nuclear deal during 2005 to 2014 has been maintaining silence over the issue since it was elected to power in the last General Election.

Though it has been a decade since the deal was signed, India has not benefitted by any transfer of technology which was denied to India since May 1974 when the country’s nuclear scientists led by Raja Ramanna and P K Iyengar conducted the first nuclear tests at Pokhran in Rajasthan. The technology and fuel which the Canadian government was to supply to India as part of the deal for purchasing the nuclear reactor installed at Tarapur was denied to India by the international nuclear community. India was described as a pariah by the group of nations led by the USA. Indian nuclear scientists were not allowed anywhere near international seminars and symposiums on nuclear sciences and engineering.

[dropcap color=”#008040″ boxed=”yes” boxed_radius=”8px” class=”” id=””]I[/dropcap]n spite of all these humiliations, Indian nuclear science sector made tremendous progress thanks to the country’s reactor engineers and scientists who perfected the Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors with indigenous technology. Many nuclear reactors were set by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd across India without any external assistance or illegal means like the one employed by Pakistan which specialises in smuggling technologies and spare parts from abroad.

When the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government ordered a series of nuclear tests at Pokhran in May 1998 as per the requirements of the country’s nuclear scientists, the whole world woke up. Even the USA was taken aback by the progress made by India in nuclear science and engineering and that too without any kind of aid or help from outside. Efforts were on since that day to make India sign the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty which would be akin to castrating the Indian atomic energy establishment. Efforts by both Bill Clinton and his successor George Bush II went awry as both Jawant Singh and Yeshwant Sinha, the foreign ministers in the Vajpayee cabinet stood their ground that till all countries dispose the nuclear arsenals under their possession, India would not sign the deal.

The Indo-US civil nuclear deal signed between India and USA is a win-win situation for the USA.

How and why the Manmohan Singh government signed the India-US civil nuclear deal subject to the term and conditions set by the US administration remains a mystery. There was no need for India to become a dumping yard for nuclear reactors built in the USA or other countries. Indian scientists were slowly but steadily designing and building indigenous nuclear reactors. Moreover there was no hurry to import nuclear reactors as per the terms and conditions of the USA which has no love lost for India even today.

[dropcap color=”#008040″ boxed=”yes” boxed_radius=”8px” class=”” id=””]T[/dropcap]he former chairman of Atomic Energy Commission, late Raja Ramanna, a well known nuclear physicist, had set a target in 1980 itself for India to produce 10,000 MW nuclear energy by the turn of the century (2000 AD). Even in 2016 the country is struggling to generate 5000 MW of nuclear energy. (Though the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd, the body responsible for designing and installing nuclear reactors in the country claim that it has an installed capacity of 5780 MW, it is an open secret that most of the 21 reactors in its fleet are not operational in full due to various reasons). The Russian built 1000 MW unit-1 at Kudankulam, though became operational on December 31, 2014, the reactor had to be shut down for more than eight months citing technical hitches. The second unit at Kudankulam which should have become operational, is fretting and fuming in spite of the fact that all components were imported from Russia.

India and Russia has signed an agreement to set up four more reactors of 1000 MW each at Kudankulam. It is not known how long it will take the NPCIL to make those reactors operational. The recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to USA culminated with India signing a deal with the USA to import six Westinghouse 1000 reactors each costing $5 billion.

Forget about the price of these reactors. What we have surrendered to the USA is our right to go for further nuclear tests. The moment India conducts a nuclear test, the US would shut down the plant and cut off the supply of fuel for these reactors. This is the core agreement in the India-US civil nuclear deal signed by Manmohan Singh and the then US president George Bush. India is the loser in the deal. The US will sell reactors to India under the terms and conditions specified by the US administration.

One has to read this together with the observation made by S Santhanam, the master brain behind the 1998 nuclear tests conducted by India in 1998. He said the yield of the test was far below the expected intensity and India may have to go for further tests. P K Iyengar, former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, too agreed with Santhanam and said that India needs to conduct more tests to check and ensure the efficacy of its nuclear arsenal. In future, if Pakistan conducts a nuclear test, all Indian scientists could do is to watch the same from the side lines as the agreement signed with the US prevents it from conducting any more tests. It is like being a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty without actually signing it.

It is impossible for India to set up a nuclear reactor in five years time, the standard international gestation period for a nuclear power plant. Even if the works for setting up the Westinghouse reactor begins in 2017, it may take at least 15 years for Indian technicians to set up such a reactor. This is what the history of Indian nuclear science has taught us. More about it on another occasion.

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