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'The Indo-US deal has global implications'

Last updated on: April 19, 2006 16:31 IST

Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal is considered one of the most articulate spokesmen for the government of India.

Kapil SibalIt was he who initiated the debate on behalf of the Manmohan Singh government on the US-India civilian nuclear agreement in both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. He is convinced the deal, if consummated, would be a catalyst for an unprecedented tangible science and technology alliance between the two countries that could impact not just India and the US, but have global implications.

In an exclusive interview with Rediff India Abroad's Aziz Haniffa, Sibal, who visited Washington for meetings with senior US officials and lawmakers, and also delivered a lecture to the Council on Foreign Relations, said the main agenda item of his trip was his meeting at the White House with Dr Jack Marburger, chief scientific adviser to US President George W Bush.  The meeting mapped out a strategy for the establishment of the Bi-National Science and Technology Commission as provided for in the July 18 US-India Joint Statement and reaffirmed by Bush during his visit to New Delhi last month.

Complete coverage: The Indo-US nuclear tango

He said Dr Elias Zehrouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, who called on him, had discussed specific projects where India and the US can work cooperatively from combating HIV/AIDS to avian flu and eradicating tuberculosis to malaria, both in India and other developing countries.

On Capitol Hill, he acknowledged that his most productive and substantive meeting was with Senator Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, who is the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He claims the Senator responded positively to a US-India Bi-National Industrial and Research arrangement akin to the one the US has with Israel, now worth billions of dollars after an investment of $100 million by each country.

The civilian nuclear deal has hogged the limelight in recent months but you've been here a couple of times pushing for science and technology cooperation between the US and India. This, of course, is your first visit as a cabinet minister. How did you meetings go in terms of the science and technology interactions and the envisaged alliances with the US government and its agencies?

In the meetings that I've had with several key people here, everybody is really looking forward to this relationship. From a long-term standpoint, everybody is convinced that this is the only way forward. The deal is important not just for India and the United States. If we want to be key players in the world this relationship is exceptionally important. The deal -- not just the civilian nuclear agreement -- but all aspects must be agreed to in order to ensure our objectives are achieved.

Could you tell us about your meetings with Dr Jack Marburger and Dr Elias Zehrouni?

Dr Marburger was very enthusiastic. The Bi-National Commission is a great idea. We are going to put in $30 million and get all the various collaborations that are already going on to move them forward very quickly -- whether it's the National Science Foundation, the NIH, and other programs. We want to move them faster so that the cooperation levels increase. With Dr Zehrouni, we were able to talk specifics, and he is extremely enthusiastic that in areas like vaccine development or dealing with dengue fever, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, avian flu, we need to move forward together. Basically we need to solve the problems of the underprivileged people in the world. And the only way to do that is to collaborate and discover new molecules and also help transnational research in India -- that is help us translate research and development into products.

Complete coverage: Dr Singh in the US

I believe you also made a trek up on Capitol Hill to meet up with Senator Bingaman -- an important and influential lawmaker when it comes to this country's scientific projects and collaborations?

In my conversation with Senator Bingaman, I mentioned the huge possibilities available to India. I said I would like is a BIRD (Bi-National Industrial Research and Development)-like arrangement, which the United States has with Israel. The US and Israel have put in $100 million each and allowed industry to interact. Projects approved by entrepreneurs at the two ends are then funded. Israel and the US have made about $8 billion out of a $200 million investment. He said it was an exciting proposition and that he would love to support it. He said he would see what he can do.

I am sure in your conversation with him you also made a strong pitch for the civilian nuclear agreement and his vote in favor of the deal?

It's not fair to talk about private conversations.

But did he give you any indication on how he is leaning on this issue?

I don't think I have the right to comment on what he said.

In terms of the civilian nuclear deal, key officials like (Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and the chief US negotiator of the agreement) Nicholas Burns and (Secretary of State) Condoleeza Rice have testified on Capitol Hill and in other forums about how imperative the science and technology component is for the relationship? That the science and technology collaboration is at the heart of the US-India strategic partnership. So in that sense, do you agree that the civilian nuclear deal is an indispensable catalyst for any tangible and long-term S&T relationship between the two countries?

Absolutely. The Americans have a huge amount to gain. Even if they were to sell two or three nuclear reactors, you can imagine the kind of profits the big companies will make here. Not only that, the kind of jobs that will be created on account of that activity. If you look at the demands of energy -- not just in India and China but the rest of the world -- we'll need something like about 1,500 nuclear reactors. So you are talking about trillions of dollars and you are also talking about a service industry of billions of dollars on an annual basis. It also opens up areas of nuclear energy, which are clean, hopefully affordable and reduces the pressure on crude oils and fossil fuels. Therefore, there is a social and economic imperative and I think both are good for the world.

Complete coverage: George Bush in India

The economic imperatives for US business and industry are a given. But what are the overriding economic and social imperatives for the Indian population, more than half of whom are mired in abject poverty?

Tremendous. Our energy demands are going to increase. We don't have the resources in terms of energy capability. So we need to marry nuclear energy with cleaner fossil fuel energy. Look for alternative forms of energy like bio-diesel power plants, bio-energy sources, others like wind and tidal-wave energy. So our options should increase so that we are able to meet the future demands of a population which is growing prosperous on a daily basis. At the moment, we have about 300 million people middle-class people. This will soon be 600 million in the next 10 to 12 years. How are we going to meet their energy demands? Civilian nuclear energy will be a significant factor. At the moment, two percent of our energy requirements are served by nuclear energy. We want to increase that 30 percent.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has slammed the agreement and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has said the US has ostensibly corralled India into -- for all intents and purposes -- committing itself to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and so on?

I am surprised. Because during the debate in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, I asked them whether they were for the deal or against it, they didn't answer. The said a lot of things but they supported it. I believe politics everywhere is the same, but I wish the opposition had reacted in a more mature and constructive fashion. But considering their track record, I don't think we can expect anything else from them.

On the question of the US Food & Drug Administration and the intellectual property rights that go with it, particularly in terms of pharmaceutical development and clinical research in India and the subsequent marketing in the US and the world, what are the hold-ups in this regard? Since without FDA approvals, all R&D becomes meaningless.

Yes. This is was major issue in my discussions. I told the US officials that biological material, which is necessary for drug development had not been provided to India. This is a big handicap. It is important to set up protocols in India for clinical research in respect of drugs. In fact, we set up a roadmap in the HTCG (High Technology Consultative Group) on how things should go forward. The denial of biologicals is apparently because of the dual-use capability of these and the paranoia of bio-terrorism. This is ridiculous. I told them that if we are to have a meaningful science and technology partnership, these kinds of obstacles have to be removed. I am glad that we have been promised a report in three months so that we can take this dialogue forward

Do you believe if the civilian nuclear agreement is approved by Congress it would change the mindset among some in the entrenched US bureaucracy about the export of such dual-use biological products to India? Besides that, India is a signatory to the chemical weapons treaty and the biological weapons international arrangements too, so where is the problem?

Of course. But the problem here is that people are viewing the civil nuclear energy agreement as a narrow issue. Remember the relationship with India is so huge that the civil nuclear energy is just part of the package. What we want to do is take this relationship forward in a big way. You shouldn't look at this relationship from the point of view of civil nuclear energy exclusively -- that is only part of it. And, that's what people have to understand. We are dealing with global issues. We are dealing with a partnership that will allow huge opportunities -- both economic and otherwise -- to open up for entrepreneurs at both ends in agriculture, clean technologies, environment and water-technologies. There are huge possibilities. When our two nations move forward, we can't get bogged down by debates which are partisan. Because the issue at stake is not nuclear weapons. They have nothing to do with this partnership. It's about cleaner technologies and newer forms of energy, which are going to serve the interests of humanity.

At various forums during this visit, in the context of IPS, you've spoken cancer and HIV/AIDS drugs and others that should be made available globally and at an affordable price. That it shouldn't be the exclusive preserve of one company or another, or a particular country, or of the haves and haves-not. So how do you alleviate the concerns of various groups in India that the recent patent production protection law adopted in India could do the same thing and deny these drugs to the indigent?

That should never happen. We are absolutely clear on this. When it comes to life-saving drugs, I don't think intellectual property should come in the way. That principle has been accepted in Doha (in the World Trade Organisation deliberations). If we are talking about HIV/AIDS, remember Indian companies could not manufacture anti-retrovirals because of issues of intellectual property. In Doha, they agreed that that would not apply to pandemics like HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis or malaria. So when you are talking about life saving drugs, I don't think intellectual property should come in the way at all.

So are you saying that India will not compromise on this issue and if there is any pressure by the US or developed countries on this issue, India will walk away from Doha?

It's not a case of compromise. There has to be dialogue. When it comes to life-saving drugs and it impacts millions of people, the international community has to sit together and resolve the issue.

And, do you believe there is an emerging consensus on this?

Absolutely. There will be progress. There has to be progress and that's the way the world is moving. The world is going to have to move forward on differential pricing -- manufacture a drug in one part of the world to make it available at cheap prices in another part of the world. Drugs need to be made cheaper in the prosperous world too. This will ensure that Americans don't have to go to Canada to buy their prescription medication.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC