India-US nuclear deal crosses major hurdleNEW DELHI - The India-US nuclear deal moved a significant step toward fruition when on Wednesday, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the US and India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act by a vote of 359-68. The bill now goes to the Senate and a conference committee to work out differences between the two houses of Congress.
The deal was negotiated a year ago and announced in March. It will allow India, a nuclear-weapons state, to purchase nuclear fuel and reactors from abroad for the first time in more than three decades. The pact required that the US Congress exempt India from certain sections of the Atomic Energy Act.
The House rejected at least three "killer" amendments that sought to constrain India's strategic nuclear deterrence. One would have required India to halt fissile-material production as a precondition of the nuclear deal.
The House also rejected an amendment that would have prohibited India from taking advantage of its new nuclear status by diverting its domestically produced uranium for weapons use. And the House shot down a move that sought to audit India's fissile-material stock annually. According to US lawmakers, India now uses half of its domestic uranium for energy production and half for weapons.
A surprise move to defer a vote until India did more to back US efforts to contain Iran also failed decisively.
Congressman Tom Lantos said the deal would be a "tidal shift in relations between India and the United States', leading to "a new era of mutual respect and cooperation. This will be known as the day when Congress signaled definitively the end of the Cold War paradigm governing interactions between New Delhi and Washington.'
Critics argue that the deal could enlarge India's nuclear arsenal and sends the wrong signal to Iran and North Korea, whose nuclear intentions Washington opposes.
"By shipping India fuel for its civilian reactors, this legislation potentially frees up their [India's] entire supply of domestic uranium for use in weapons,' Congressman Ed Markey, head of a bipartisan non-proliferation task force, said before the vote.
In a last-minute effort to scuttle the accord, lawmakers led by Markey sent a letter on Monday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanding that the State Department submit a required semi-annual report that details the activities of foreigners (including Indian firms and individuals) deemed to have dealt with Iran or Syria in nuclear trade.
The State Department's deputy spokesman Tom Casey, however, allayed suggestions that the administration of President George W Bush was withholding the report pending the passage of the nuclear deal. The semi-annual Iran Non-proliferation Act Compliance Report detailing activities of foreign companies and entities that may have assisted Iran in proliferation activities will be out very shortly, he said, asserting there are no political considerations that are delaying its release to Capitol Hill.
Still a long way to go
The deal has still quite a way to go before it can become a reality. The Senate must also approve the pact; then the House and Senate will vote again after US-India negotiations on the technical details of the agreement are completed.
India also has to satisfy the International Atomic Energy Agency (which has been supportive of the deal so far) on inspection procedures for its civilian nuclear facilities; then there is the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to contend with, with China likely to put up some opposition to changing international regulations to allow nuclear transfers to India.
Some experts say that the deal will lead to an arms race in South Asia, with recent reports (the timing of which seems curiously linked to the House vote) saying that Pakistan is a building a new 1,000-megawatt nuclear power station that could produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Critics sought to link the Indian deal to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security that said Islamabad was building a nuclear reactor able to provide fissile material for up to 50 atomic bombs a year. The move could signal an acceleration of regional nuclear proliferation, and the new reactor could be finished within a few years, the report said.
Washington quickly acknowledged that it already knew about Pakistan's plans. "Pakistan is not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, nor is India, and therefore they do develop their capabilities independently. But we continue to discourage the expansion and modernization of nuclear-weapons programs, both of India and Pakistan,' said White House spokesman Tony Snow.
Success in Washington is one thing, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must still sell the pact to India's own legislature against the opposition of both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the left-wing members who support his government, In his first reaction after the House vote, Manmohan told parliament that India needs to be patient as the final version of the act will only emerge after the Senate and the House meet.
He said the Indian government has conveyed to Washington its apprehensions, and it is up to the US administration to ensure that Indian's interests are appropriately safeguarded in the two houses. India will then assess whether the final act meets its requirements.
The nuclear deal has led to a peculiar situation of the BJP and the left talking in the same voice, with only the Congress party members supporting the deal. In an unusual show of solidarity, the BJP and the left, along with smaller and regional representations, have joined hands to press for a "resolution' expressing the "sentiments" of the two houses of parliament that the final pact should not transgress the parameters laid down by the Singh-Bush joint statement of July 18 last year.
The parties accuse the government of selling out to the US and acquiescing to unfair dictates that could impinge on India's independent nuclear-weapons program and strategic security. The BJP, normally pro-American, has called the deal "unacceptable' as it would make India "perpetually dependent' on outside sources of nuclear energy.
On Wednesday (in India, a day before the US House vote), Manmohan assured parliament that his government will never compromise in a manner that is inconsistent with the July 18, 2005, Indo-US joint statement on civilian nuclear energy. In the end, however, the deal will and should boil down to meeting India's growing energy needs.
Oil is expensive, coal causes pollution and reserves are being depleted, while hydro energy brings about problems related to environment and rehabilitation. In this context, nuclear and renewable energy sources need to be tapped aggressively if India is to sustain more than 8% growth in the long term.
India has 14 reactors in commercial operation and nine under construction. Currently, nuclear power supplies a measly 3% of India's electricity; by 2050, nuclear power is expected to provide 25% of the country's power. Given its limited uranium reserves, India will have to look at international resources and technology as well as tap its huge thorium reserves, about 25% of the world's total, to sustain a long-term nuclear-power program.
Manmohan recently said: "The speed with which we can develop nuclear power is constrained by the availability of uranium. The civil nuclear agreement we have entered into with the United States, and our discussions with the NSG, should help in accelerating the development of nuclear energy.'
India needs the nuclear deal with appropriate safeguards to its sovereignty in place.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.