The direction in which the Indo-US nuclear cooperation deal is being steered by the US appears to focus more on non-proliferation aspects rather than civil nuclear cooperation. Thus deviating from the July 18, 2005 joint statement, as evident from the contents of the Bill HR5682 passed by the House of Representatives in June 2006.
The Bill which comes up for consideration before the Senate next month has created ripples in the minds of various political parties, strategic analysts, media and the top nuclear scientific community in India.
This culminated in a debate in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament on August 17. The prime minister's statement with his detailed response to various points of concern keeping the July 18 Statement and the March 2, 2006 Separation plan as guiding documents has to a large extent helped clarify the Indian stand.
The ball is now squarely in the US court. It will be interesting to watch whether this will be followed in letter and spirit by both sides and the US reaction. Among the various aspects, the following are particularly worth mentioning.
Inspite of all that has been said by the US president and the Indian prime minister, there is still some doubt regarding compliance with the most basic point in the joint statement, namely -- India assumes the same responsibilities and practices and acquires the same benefits and advantages as other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology, such as the US.
The most appropriate place where this could be seen to be followed is when the India-specific safeguards agreements are negotiated. This could well become a bone of contention given the complexities involved, particularly in respect of India being implicitly eligible to be treated like a weapons state as per the joint statement without being formally recognised as a weapons state as per NPT parlance.
One has to see how this will evolve. The weapons states hardly practice any rigorous IAEA safeguards regime and there doesn't seem to be any requirement of safeguards in perpetuity. Also, there is no way India could accept an independent safeguards regime from the US as a backup to IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards as is being mooted.
Another point of important concern is in spite of the clear mention of full civil nuclear cooperation there are indications from the US that sensitive technologies such as reprocessing, uranium enrichment and heavy water will be excluded. In the ultimate analysis, nothing short of real, full cooperation is to be accepted by India.
One complex aspect to contend with is that the technologies and facilities involved are invariably common to both civil and military applications as a result of which non-proliferation aspects and safeguards arrangements could get mucked-up. Satisfactory resolution of this requires careful handling.
There are lots of opinions being expressed regarding the binding and non-binding provisions in the Congress Bills. This is highly confusing and though it is more an internal issue of the US, it is interesting to watch how best the President could circumvent objectionable clauses which are not in conformity with the joint statement and satisfy India.
There are other aspects -- such as one-time permanent waiver as against annual certification, FMCT [Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty] to be treated as a multilateral issue, and no conditions to be imposed in the final agreement against India going for nuclear tests in the context of supreme national security interest -- that are issues to be tackled.
The bottom line is it should be understood that India, having developed expertise and capability covering the entire fuel cycle against heavy odds, is really not looking for large-scale technology inputs but would like to play a global role in nuclear commerce, preserving the global norms on non-proliferation as a responsible country.
In fact, India has got a lot to offer to countries like the US by way of expertise and services.
Dr A N Prasad is the former director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai