(Author’s Note September 3 2008: This article “Need for Clarity” published in The Statesman last year was one of several I have published on the subject; see also, for example, “Towards an Energy Policy”, “India’s Energy Interests” , “Against Quackery” all published first in The Statesman in 2006 and 2007; also “India and ‘Energy Security'” which was my lecture to a KAF conference on the subject. It seems quite prescient in that it anticipated by a few months the “secret” letter from the US Executive Branch to the Legislative Branch, released by the Washington Post today . India’s UPA Government has put forward a junior spokesman from the Congress Party to waffle around with a purported explanation. )
Need for Clarity
A poorly drafted treaty driven by business motives is a recipe for international misunderstanding
First published in The Sunday Statesman, August 19 2007, Editorial Page Special Article
Confusion prevails over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. Businessmen, bureaucrats, politicians, diplomats, scientists and now the public at large have all joined in the cacophony in the last two years.
On Wednesday August 15, America’s foreign ministry made the clearest most unequivocal statement possible as to the official American Government interpretation of the Indo-US nuclear deal: “The proposed 123 agreement has provisions in it that in an event of a nuclear test by India, then all nuclear co-operation is terminated, as well as there is provision for return of all materials, including reprocessed material covered by the agreement” (Sean McCormack). Yet our Prime Minister had told Parliament two days earlier: “The agreement does not in any way affect India’s right to undertake future nuclear tests, if it is necessary”. What is going on? Our politics are in uproar, and it has been suggested in these pages that the country go to a General Election to allow the people to speak on the matter. Clearly, we need some clarity.
Let us start at the beginning. How did it all originate? The private US nuclear industry prevailed upon India’s government bureaucrats and businessmen over several years that nuclear power is the way forward to solving India’s “infrastructure” problems. They would sell us, in words of the Manmohan-Montek Planning Commission’s energy adviser, “six to eight lightwater reactors” (especially as they may not be able to sell these anywhere else). Our usual prominent self-seeking retired bureaucrats started their waffling about the importance of “infrastructure”.
Then Manmohan Singh felt his foreign travels as PM could be hardly complete without a fife-and-drum visit to the White House. But before he could do so, Dabhol would have to be cleared up since American business in India was on a self-moratorium until GE and Bechtel were paid settlements of some $140-160 million each by the Governments of India and Maharashtra. GE’s CEO for India kindly said afterwards “India is an important country to GE’s global growth. We look forward to working with our partners, customers, and State and Central Governments in helping India continue to develop into a leading world economy”.
Also, before Manmohan’s USA trip, the Confederation of Indian Industry registered as an official Washington lobbyist and spent half a million dollars lobbying American politicians for the deal. (“Why?” would be a good question.)
So Dr Singh was able to make his White House visit, accompanied by US business lobbies saying the nuclear deal can generate $100 billion worth of new American business in India’s energy-sector alone. It is only when business has lubricated politics in America that so much agreement about the India-deal could arise. The “bottom-line” is that six to eight reactors must be sold to India, whatever politics and diplomacy it takes.
Now Dr Singh is not a PM who is a Member of the Lower House of Parliament commanding its confidence. He says his Government constitutes the Executive and can sign treaties on India’s behalf. This is unwise. If he signs a treaty and then the Congress Party loses the next General Election, a new Executive Government can use his same words to rescind the same treaty. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. One reason we are so confused is that India has not signed very many bilateral treaties, and there is barely a noted specialist in international law anywhere in the country. Dr Singh’s original mentor, PN Haksar, had gone about getting a treaty signed with the USSR back in 1971 which tided us over a war, though the USSR itself collapsed before that treaty ended.
Signing a treaty is much more than signing an international MOU. It requires a national consensus or a least a wide and deep understanding on the part of the public and the political class as to what necessitates the treaty. That plainly does not exist at present. Most people in India do not even know how nuclear power is generated, nor how small and insignificant nuclear power has been in India.
Natural uranium is 99.3 per cent of the U-238 isotope and 0.7 per cent the radioactive U-235 isotope. Nuclear power generation requires “enriched uranium” or “yellow cake” to be created in which U-235 has been increased from 0.7 per cent to 4 to 5 percent. (Nuclear bombs require “highly enriched” uranium with more than 90 per cent of U-235.) Yellow cake is broken into small pieces, put in metal rods placed in bundles, which are then bombarded by neutrons causing fission. In a reactor, the energy released turns water into steam, which moves turbines generating electricity. While there is no carbon dioxide “waste” as in burning fossil fuels, the “spent” rods of nuclear fuel and other products constitute grave radioactive waste, almost impossible to dispose of.
India’s 14 “civilian” nuclear reactors presently produce less than 4% of our total power. 70% of our power arises from burning fossil fuels, mainly coal. Much of the rest arises from hydro. We have vast hydroelectric potential in the North and Northeast but it would take a lot of serious political, administrative and civil engineering effort to organise all that, and there would not be any nice visits to Washington or Paris involved for politicians and bureaucrats.
Simple arithmetic says that even if all our principal energy sources stayed constant and only our tiny nuclear power sector grew by 100%, that would still hardly increase by very much our energy output overall. Placing a couple of expensive modern lightwater reactors around Delhi, a couple around Mumbai and a few other metros will, however, butter already buttered bread quite nicely and keep all those lifts and ACs running.
The agreed text of the “treaty” looks, from a legal standpoint, quite sloppily and hurriedly written ~ almost as if each side has cut and paste its own preferred terms in different places with a nod to the other side. For example, there is mention of “WMD” initially which is repeated as “weapons of mass destruction” just a little later. There is solemn mention of the “Government of India” and “Government of the United States of America” as the “Parties”, but this suddenly becomes merely “United States” and “India” in the middle and then reverts again to the formal usage.
Through the sloppiness comes scope for different interpretations. The Americans have said: try not to test, you don’t need to, we don’t test any more, and you have to know that if you do test, this deal is over, in fact it gets reversed. We have said, okay, we won’t test, and if we do test we know it is over with you but that does not mean it is over with others. Given such sloppy diplomacy and treaty-making, the scope for mutual misunderstanding, even war, remains immense long after all the public Indian moneys have found their way into private pockets worldwide. Will a future President Jeb Bush or Chelsea Clinton send F-22 bombers to bomb India’s nuclear facilities because India has carried out a test yet declined to return American equipment? Riding a tiger is not something generally to be recommended.
The answer to our present conundrum must be patience and the fullest transparency. What is the rush? If it is good or bad for us to buy six or eight new American reactors now, it will remain good or bad to do so a year or two from now after everyone has had a thorough think about everything that is involved. What the Manmohan-Montek Planning Commission needed to do first of all was a thorough cost-benefit analysis of India’s energy requirements but such elementary professionalism has been sorely lacking among our economists for decades.
The search engine above should locate any article by its title; the Index and Archives may be used as well.
Readers are welcome to quote from my work under the normal “fair use” rule, but please try to quote me by name and indicate the place of original publication in case of work being republished here. I am at Twitter @subyroy, see my latest tweets above