India and the US on Friday operationalised the "path-breaking" bilateral nuclear deal as they signed the 123 Agreement here, with New Delhi insisting that the accord is "legally-binding" on both sides.
External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put the final seal on the agreement at an impressive ceremony held in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the State Department, culminating a crisis-ridden process initiated on July 18, 2005 in Washington during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit for talks with US President George W. Bush.
"Both India and the US Administration have now completed all our internal procedures to be able to sign this path-breaking agreement," Mukherjee said after signing the agreement, paving the way for entry of American companies into the Indian nuclear market after three decades.
"Today is an important day for India-US relations, for global energy security and for our common endeavour to promote sustainable development while addressing environmental challenges," he said at the ceremony held at the State Department.
Noting that the agreement reflects a "careful balance of rights and obligations", he said "its (agreement's) provisions are now legally-binding on both sides once the agreement enters into force."
This comment assumes significance since the US had said that the contents of the 123 Agreement were a political commitment and not legally binding, triggering concerns in India over aspects like promises on nuclear fuel assurances.
He said the importance of the Agreement is that it was the first step to civil nuclear cooperation and trade between India and the US.
"It is also the first step to India's cooperation with the rest of the world in civil nuclear energy," he said.
He said the signing of the agreement has brought to fruition three years of "extraordinary effort" by both India and the US and it was "one more visible sign of the transformed relationship and partnership" that the two countries are building.
"We now look forward to working with US companies on the commercial steps that will follow to implement this landmark agreement," Mukherjee said.
The External Affairs Minister described the agreement as the first step to India's cooperation with the rest of the world in civil nuclear field.
By reinforcing and increasing the nuclear element in the country's energy mix, which is vital to sustain India's growth rate, nuclear power will directly boost industrial growth, rural development and help expand every vital sector of the country's economy, he said.
"It enables India to respond with her global partners to the challenges of climate change and global warming by strengthening her own economic growth and sustainable development," he said.
Mukherjee said the wide-ranging initiatives announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W Bush in July 2005 and March 2006 have led to a transformed relationship between the two countries.
Praising Bush, Rice and the American Congress besides the Indian-American community for making the agreement a reality, the External Affairs Minister said New Delhi looks forward to working with Washington in other fields as well.
He listed these as combating terrorism, containing and fighting pandemics, climate change, ensuring food security, cooperating in disaster relief operations and other regional and global initiatives.