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'The people of India are for the nuclear deal'

By Ajit Jain
June 25, 2008 13:14 IST
The Indian Merchants Chamber, Mumbai, sponsored what was by far the biggest Indian business delegation specific to Canada. It was led by Union Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal.

In an exclusive interview with Rediff India Abroad Senior Editor Ajit Jain, Sibal said he was hopeful of signing the 123 Agreement that would help India to get rid of the denial regime, and emergence from nuclear apartheid.

What's the status on the Canada-India science and technology agreement?

That's moving forward. There's already a commitment of $17 million, about $8.5 million on each side. Already 17 projects have been cleared. I have suggested Indo-Canadian collaboration in nanotechnology.

Governments can only do so much. It is ultimately the private sector which has to take the relationship forward. There's a very strong Indo-Canadian community here, which is almost 3 per cent of the population. This is the entity which will gather momentum as this relationship moves forward.

Of course, we are hoping when we will sign the 123 Agreement (with the United States) there's going to be a lot of potential in the nuclear technology area. Canada is a great source of uranium, which is in very short supply in India. Our defense establishment is opening up. Geo-space technology is very, very strong in this country. That sector is now opening up in India. So, I think, there's great potential in this relationship.

Canada and India had a nuclear agreement. The Canadian authorities say they are waiting to see what happens between India and the US.

It (the Canada-India agreement) is linked up for the simple reason that we haven't signed the NPT ( nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty); we haven't signed the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty). And, of course, we continue to be in the denial regime. We are among the three countries who didn't participate in the overall global acceptance of the NPT and the CTBT.

So in the context of that denial regime, especially after our experiment of 1998, no country is willing to supply us nuclear technology or raw material in the form of uranium till such time as we come to terms with the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

In the NSG there's an understanding that they will not trade with any country that hasn't signed these global treaties. So, no country which is part of the NSG can individually supply raw material to us, or nuclear technology or know-how. So, it is not a question of India-Canada bilateral relationship. It is a multilateral agreement and in that context of multilateral agreement, there's a multilateral embargo. Therefore, we want to break actually this embargo, get rid of this denial regime, (and) not be subject to nuclear apartheid.

That's why Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has been saying time and time again that the 123 Agreement is good for India. It will open up a lot of possibilities. It will help in shoring the tremendous shortfall in energy in India. In the context of global warming, this source is clean. Many of our plants are now starving of uranium, and we need uranium. There's no other way to get uranium except by entering the mainstream.

The prime minister said even the other day that he's hopeful of moving forward. Let us see what happens in trying to convince our coalition partners, specially our Left partners.

Is there optimism within India?

Yes. The country by and large supports the deal. I am not talking about the politicians who are taking political positions in Parliament. That doesn't necessarily represent the mood of the country. I believe the people of India are for the deal.

If people are for the deal, why are politicians against it?

We understand the political position that the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has taken. Their position has always been consistent: When in government do one thing, when in Opposition do the opposite. They were opposed to the insurance sector being liberalised. Ultimately, they passed the bill which we had presented and they had opposed when in the Opposition.

They had opposed the Patents Act, and in fact didn't allow it to be passed earlier. We missed another window of opportunity. When they came to power they passed the same Patents Act that they had opposed. The same thing they are doing with the nuclear agreement.

They are the ones who started strategic relationship through strategic dialogue. And they are the ones who took the initiative. You heard what Strobe Talbott says. You heard others say. You heard what (then) prime minister (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee said in the (United Nations) general assembly that India doesn't want to test again; we are not opposed to signing the CTBT, and it is a matter of months we will sign the CTBT.

Here's a party whose leader, then the prime minister of India, publicly stated that they don't want to test any more as they don't need to test any more. This is the very reason today L K Advani is opposing the deal -- that we don't want to give up the right to test, which their leader and prime minister had already given up way back.

So, we understand the BJP politics but I believe on certain issues national interest should come first and partisan politics should come later. Unfortunately, this has not happened.

Is Canada's being an NSG member holding it back?

This is not the position of Canada alone. This is the position of most of NSG members, most of the countries that we have had dialogues (with) are hoping that the 123 deal with the US goes through. France is very keen to supply us nuclear reactors. More than 70 percent of energy in France comes from nuclear energy but they can't do business with India till such time 123 is signed.

We are part of a global nuclear embargo. We are subject to global nuclear apartheid. And we want to move on, so that our people get the opportunities that they deserve in the context of another option in the energy sector.

It is not the question of only supply of uranium to India. It is also the question of our exporting our own technology. We, over the years, because of (nuclear) apartheid, developed our own technology. We have developed our nuclear reactors which we can sell to smaller countries in the world.

Unfortunately, we can't do that as long as we are not part of the mainstream. So, there's lot of profits to be made by our entrepreneurs through our own technology and as we develop and collaborate with the West, once we are part of the mainstream, we will develop our own technology that will help us to trade in nuclear reactors and to supply energy to countries which are short of it.

Education in India is a key focus area now.

Education is not the correct terminology in the context of the 21st century. We are in the knowledge century. And any avenue for gaining knowledge is part of human resource, which is part of raw material for the 21st century. We must get access to that raw material wherever in the world that might be accessible. Knowledge and technology are two sides of the same coin.

Second, considering the population in India of less than 25 years of age is more than the entire population of Europe, it is time for us to make sure that we empower those young people. The only way to empower them is human resource development, and the only way human resource development would take place is to ensure that there's 100 per cent primary education for our children, and as they move up into higher education, that larger number of people go to the university system.

This cannot be done by the State alone. The State does not have resources and the facilities to meet the kind of needs that India has in the context of demands on education. It is essential for us to realise (that) private cooperation is exceptionally important in education.

We must open up our universities, our education system, to direct foreign investment. We had drafted a bill for foreign institutions in India. Unfortunately, that hasn't been passed in Parliament yet.

York University wanted to open a campus in Mumbai or Pune. It hasn't materialised yet.

It is not just the question of the Schulich School of Business at York University, it is a question of opening up the education sector to foreign direct investment. The moment you do that, a lot of foreign money and foreign institutions will come in. It will be very difficult to regulate the quality. There will be one institution of very high quality but nine of them of very poor quality. We have seen that happening.

Also, whatever little faculty we have within the system will then be bought, or rather will be outsourced. They will shift to the foreign institutions. Our own people would be left without faculty. And foreign institutions will charge exorbitant money sitting in India. Therefore, it will become a profit making enterprise. I am giving you the other side of the argument.

I read in the brochure somewhere that the Schulich School was thinking of charging $30,000. How many people in India can afford $30,000? Education is a sector which must give access to all even if they don't have the capacity to pay.

So, if $30,000 is the fee, we need to make sure that everyone has access to it. Then we will have to subsidise our poor students. India doesn't have resources to do that. So, we haven't yet found the right balance in the context in which all this can be allowed. I think we are trying to find that balance. I am all for foreign direct investment in education.

But what about the existing quality of education in India? There are a lot of institutions that just give degrees.

I agree. Half a million graduates come out each year. Are all of them employable? I am not too sure. When we talk to many of our companies, they say they have to give them extra training. Quantity and quality must go hand in hand. In the knowledge era, we need quality education. We don't just need numbers. We need skills training institutions.

The finance minister this year has launched a programme for skills development and put in a lot of money. This will be done in a public-private partnership. This government has realised the importance of skills training, the importance of technical education, the importance of quality in education.

If you bring in foreign direct investment in the education sector, it will have impact on the quality of education as well. Apart from FDI in education, what's even more important is restructuring our educational system, allowing much greater freedom to our educational institutions, allowing them to collaborate with others, and playing the markets along with others. In that context, only the quality institutions will survive and not those who don't deliver.

Ajit Jain