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Indo-US Nuclear Deal: Is it worth it?

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 18, 2007

    Many commentators have declared President Bush's signing into law of the US-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Co-operation Act as one of the most decisive moments in international politics in recent years. However, opinion on this deal within the country is divided, with a section of the scientific community contending that the US is attempting to cap India's nuclear weapon ambitions, which, in the long run may hamper its strategic interests, while some politicians and analysts view the deal as a win-win situation for India.

    When first proposed, the deal had many backers. But the scientific community turned critical of the deal after finding that the commitments made in the original July 18, 2005 document were getting diluted in the course of negotiations. Opposition to the deal from political parties in both countries essentially reflects their distinct mindsets.

    Within India, the quality of debate has been of a good standard and has mostly revolved around relevant issues. At the same time, public interest, awareness and participation in the debate has also been found to be quite encouraging. However, it appears that the debate has missed the larger issue of identifying the actual threats the country is likely to face in the coming years. Moreover, nobody has been able to quantify the so-called 'strategic acceptability' that this deal is supposed to bring to the country apart from nuclear energy.

    The anti-deal lobby is of the view that the deal is not good for India because the US will not allow the conduct of further nuclear tests. It feels that if India is not permitted to have the option of further tests then the robustness of its nuclear deterrence is likely to get diluted. But the question is: what is the need for India to test? Do we wish to get involved in a nuclear arms race? Also, given that the acquisition of nuclear weapons did not prevent the Kargil conflict, what is the use of such traditional deterrence when it has no relevance for asymmetric warfare which appears to be the warfare of today and tomorrow. Be that as it may, are not our existing nuclear capabilities sufficient to deter our adversaries?

    From the civilian nuclear energy point of view, the deal has not much to offer. Currently, nuclear energy provides less then 2 per cent of India's energy needs and this deal may help increase it to 7 per cent. Thus in reality there will only be a marginal increase in nuclear energy's contribution to India's overall energy needs. In this context, the pro-deal camp argues that what is of utmost importance is, apart from increasing nuclear energy output, the access to technology in many other spheres that India is likely to get - access denied consequent to the 1974 test. The deal, this camp claims, will stop the technological apartheid that India has been subject to since then.

    But the actual issue to consider is India's future technological needs and the way to cater for them. A look at the journey of Indian technology during the last two decades shows that India has made remarkable progress in the arenas of information technology, biotechnology, space technology, etc. While it is true that sanctions on ISRO in the 1990s delayed some projects, it has also had the unintended consequence of helping the country to indigenise technologies. Now Indian scientists are confident of going to the moon without any foreign assistance. They took a first step towards achieving this dream on January 10, 2007 by successfully launching a space recovery capsule into space.

    Today, many major global industrial houses have stakes in India. The world had started recognizing India as an emerging power even before the Indo-US deal was concluded, essentially based on its booming economy, trained manpower and technological progress. What India lacks is expertise in the areas of chip (integrated circuits) manufacture, nanotechnology, etc. Its major requirements in defence related technologies include aircraft engine technology, radar systems, battle tanks etc. However, it can be safely argued that post 1990 India has done reasonably well for itself in many fields.

    The entire debate on the Indo-US nuclear deal over the last eighteen months indicates that on issues related to probable threats to the country and regarding the future of the country, the 'thinking community' is following a predictable path and not trying to look at 'real' issues. Both lobbies have preconceived notions about security and have failed to understand the actual nature of the threats the country is facing or is likely to face, and if the 'rise of India' has to become a reality then what actually India needs to invest in.

    The larger point that both lobbies have missed is that energy and technology are not the only important elements for India's future. There are many other problems, which demand more urgent attention. But unfortunately an image is being created that the Indo-US deal is a magic wand that would solve many future problems facing the country. For instance, nobody talks about the country's huge population, which is the root cause of many problems. Even those who recently have been arguing that the country's huge youth population is an asset ignore its flip side - unguided, uneducated, and unemployed youth who are likely to create many social problems. No amount of imported technology can create job opportunities for this lot. Moreover, what can only be called an unhealthy focus on technology has meant that efforts are not being made to attract the best talent towards studying pure science. In fact, there is a failure to understand that technological growth is directly dependent on investments in and focus on pure science and not off-the-shelf purchases from any other state.

    Similarly, while there is recognition that terrorism and the Naxal menace are the greatest threats facing the country today, there is no concerted effort to address root causes that have given rise to them. Instead, India seems to have fallen into the trap of addressing these issues only at the margins. Other threats like environmental degradation, corruption, AIDS, drugs, crime, likely demographic changes, etc. are mostly being talked about only by NGOs and get very less state attention. All these issues do not necessarily require American help in the form of technology. Because the traditional notion of national security is protection of citizens from overseas assault, these other aspects are generally ignored. But it is these issues that constitute the actual ground realities. Ignoring these and instead directing all focus on issues like technology is akin to preparing for the wrong war in which victory is usually impossible.