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Rebuff from NSG is of India's own making

By B S Raghavan
June 27, 2016 23:34 IST
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the SCO meeting in Tashkent. Photograph: PTIImmediate NSG membership will not help India realise its nuclear ambitions any faster.
It could have easily left the process take its own course, instead of running a high-stakes campaign to get in, says B S Raghavan.

Stone-walled, blackballed, appalled -- just about describes India's predicament following the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting at Seoul on June 24.

Despite the frantic efforts made by the foreign secretary making a desperate dash to Beijing to plead India's case for admission and despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi earnestly urging Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit, at Tashkent, to go by a 'fair and objective' assessment of India's credentials, China stuck to its guns and India came a cropper.

But was China the sole stumbling block to arriving at a consensus at the NSG meeting? It certainly was more open in articulating its objections to India gaining entry, but was not alone.

For the statement issued by the participating governments at the end of the meeting declared 'firm support' for the 'full, complete and effective' implementation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime.

The formulation seems to close the doors against India unless it signs the treaty -- a stand that China had been taking from the beginning. At the meeting, according to official sources, China seems to have found supporters in Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Switzerland and Turkey which were later joined by other countries as well, in making the point that once a window was opened, it would be discriminatory to block other non-NPT countries.

Switzerland's 'nay' is an inexplicable and ugly surprise, for as soon as Modi concluded his parleys with Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann, during his recent visit to that country, he gave out that India's admission to the NSG had Switzerland's 'full support.' After his meeting with Modi in Geneva, the Swiss president too said, 'We have promised India support in its efforts to become a member of NSG.'

A somersault of this egregious nature and that too, on the part of an enlightened country given to clockwork precision in language and action, is unheard of. India should demand an explanation from Switzerland for leading it down the primrose path.

At least on the face of it, therefore, it is apparent that China was not isolated in the NSG as regards its position: No NPT, no membership.

This is notwithstanding India's contention that being a signatory to the NPT is not a precondition for NSG membership. Its arguments that its membership is in the larger global interest, that it will further strengthen nuclear non-proliferation and make global nuclear commerce more secure, and that it would advance energy security and make a difference to combating climate change, haven't cut ice.

On the contrary, China's categorical assertion that for a country to be an NSG member, signing the NPT is 'a must' seems to have weighed with the NSG. China reportedly argued that this rule had not been set by it, but by the international community, and warned 'if exceptions are allowed here or there on the question of the NPT, international non-proliferation will collapse altogether.'

According to another version, put out by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, 'The NSG meeting had no discussion on the accession of any (particular) country. The NSG chair also announced that there was no such agenda. Everyone just talked about one common concern, which is how to deal with the accession of non-NPT countries to the group. Extensive discussions on this issue are still going on within the group, and such discussions are quite necessary.'

Actually, it is a riddle, wrapped in mystery, inside an enigma, why India should have pulled all stops and put all its weight behind something that was not of earth-shaking consequence.

The riddle stems from the failure of external affairs ministry mandarins to properly interpret the signals that were loud and clear and read the writing on the wall. They seem to have assumed that the support of the US and some other leading industrial countries was all that was needed to help India sail through.

They should have made due allowances for the plausibility of the objections and shown due respect for dissenting members' susceptibilities, and completed the process of removing all their doubts and reservations and securing their approval, before officially applying for membership.

Instead, they gambled on the off-chance of the political clout of a few heavyweights carrying the day.

Also, they seem to have heavily banked upon the 'unique' waiver granted by the NSG to India in 2008 to trade for civilian nuclear fuel and technology, a right which only Nuclear Weapon States enjoyed. At that time too, a diplomatic row had erupted following China's opposition to such a waiver, but somehow then US president George W Bush was able to overcome its resistance by a personal phone call to then Chinese president Hu Jintao.

The external affairs ministry establishment seems to have assumed that, applying the same analogy, the NSG would overlook whatever was wanting in India's case in meeting the criteria for membership.

The mystery aspect derives from the question why Modi, with all his political astuteness and sensitivity to the gamesmanships of governments honed by his visits to so many countries, staked all his prestige and authority to mobilise various governments, including a personal plea to the Chinese president, on an issue whose intrinsic importance didn't deserve to be escalated to their level.

Further, when a prime minister of a great country gets into the arena to fight, he should fight to win. A problem worth being taken up at the very summit is the long-festering border issue, fouling up relations between India and China; not the membership of a motley forum like the NSG.

The enigma is: Where was the atomic energy expert community in all this frenetic goings-on? Were they in the foreign secretary's or the prime minister's entourage when the former went to Beijing to canvass India's case or when Modi met Xi? If not, why not?

That, in fact, is only a pro forma question, considering the fact that there are no rich dividends to be reaped from NSG membership and India can as well afford to skip it. One can be sure that the chairman and the knowledgeable professionals of the Atomic Energy Commission were fully aware of it and hence, the greater enigma is why they didn't try to bring a sense of proportion and perspective to the cogitations on the matter.

Belying all the hullabaloo surrounding nuclear energy, the fact which some might find startling is that it is totally incidental, if not irrelevant, for India.

Out of a total installed electricity generation capacity of 284,634 MW as on April 1, 2015, it constitutes only 5,780 MW or, roughly two percent, as against a target of installing 17,400 MW by next year.

This unbridgeable backlog holds no promise of the country ever being able to fulfil its dream of supplying 25 per cent of electricity from nuclear power by 2050.

At one time it was thought that, having the world's second largest (after Australia) thorium reserves, India can go in for thorium fuelled reactors which will be faster, cleaner, cheaper, proliferation-resistant and less accident-prone.

The development of thorium-based technology has taken several hits with the result that experts now estimate that it would take India at least another four decades before it has built up a sufficient fissile material inventory to launch the take-off stage. The earliest projections place major thorium reactor construction well beyond 2070.

In other words, immediate membership of the NSG is not going to help India realise its nuclear ambitions any faster. It could have easily left the process take its own course, while concentrating its efforts on mastering the heavy water thorium fuel cycle within the next couple of decades or so.

Simultaneously, it should also develop its immense non-conventional and energy potential estimated at 147,615 MW (as on April 1, 2015), of which 102,772 MW will come from wind power, 19,749 from small hydro power, 17,538 from biomass and 5,000 MW from bagasse-based co-generation in sugar mills.

This is the only way that will enable India to stand on its own legs in energy management without needing extraneous props of any kind.

B S Raghavan was the first power commissioner of West Bengal, and headed premier organisations like the Damodar Valley Corporation, the West Bengal Power Development Corporation and the Durgapur Projects Limited, besides being a member of the Government of India's expert group on energy in the 1980s.

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