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India gains unique status

New Delhi, March 2: In a development that could radically transform India-US relations, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush today concluded the first stage of the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement.

Bush has accepted India’s plan for the separation of civilian and military nuclear facilities without affecting the size and scope of its weapons programme.

Describing the development as a “historic accomplishment”, Singh thanked Bush for his “initiative”. “But for his leadership this day would probably have not come so soon.”

Bush applauded Singh’s “courage” in reaching the agreement.

The details of the separation plan have not yet been made public. Singh is expected to disclose the details in Parliament on Monday.

Singh said Bush now intends to approach the US Congress to amend laws, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to adjust its guidelines.

Congress has to modify laws or enact a new law to allow nuclear cooperation with India. The NSG is a cartel of 45 countries which controls the supply of nuclear material and technology and has several members who still have to be brought on board.

In the separation plan, India has virtually got what it wanted. More than a third of its nuclear reactor capacity and its fast breeder reactor programme would be out of any international inspection regime and it would be able to import nuclear fuel and technology. There is the prospect of ending India’s isolation in terms of access to dual-use and high-end technology.

In return, the US gets India as a counterweight to the growing influence of China in the region; a potential market for its nuclear and, more important, defence technologies; a rationale for reviving its nuclear industry which has not built a single new nuclear plant since 1979; and the potentiality of using India’s skilled nuclear manpower for outsourcing R&D.

Singh said that India would now have to go to the International Atomic Energy Agency for “India-specific safeguards”. This is because of the “unique” position of India ' a nuclear capable state which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Contrary to what the government’s spin-doctors had been claiming last July ' that India will now be a de facto nuclear power ' a separate category will be created for India distinct from the five nuclear powers and the non-nuclear signatories of the NPT.

This means that the existing safeguard regimes used for nuclear weapons powers and for non-nuclear weapons NPT states, respectively, will not apply to India and fresh safeguards would be negotiated. Consequently, an “additional protocol” (an inspections regime) different from those in existence would also have to be constructed.

The negotiations were difficult and continued till the eleventh hour.

The two last-minute glitches related to the US demand for imposing safeguards in perpetuity and the status of future Indian nuclear reactors.

Finally, the US gave in to India’s insistence, according to sources, that permanent safeguards must entail permanent supply of nuclear fuel and that the status of future reactors would be decided by India alone.

Bush underlined the difficulties associated with the agreement while saying that achieving it was not easy either for him or for Singh.

Future difficulties could arise from the fact that this is an understanding between India and the Bush administration. Bush now has to get it through Congress and bring the recalcitrant NSG states around. Neither is going to be easy.

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