Journalist | Writer | Analyst
18 December 2009
Mamata, G8 ban cast shadow on Indo-Russian nuclear deal
New Delhi: Indian officials put on a brave face earlier this year when the G8 decided to ban the sale of enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technology to countries that had not signed the NPT, insisting the resolution was not binding and that members of the rich nations club remained free to sell sensitive nuclear items to India.
But when negotiations to finalise a broad-based nuclear compact with Russia were held in Delhi earlier this month, all attempts by the Indian side to include ENR items and technology in the areas of cooperation envisaged by the new agreement drew a firm nyet from the visiting delegation. “Russia’s hands are tied because of the G8 decision,” they told the Indian negotiators.
The matter was eventually resolved by introducing permissive language on ENR in Article 6(3) of the India-Russia inter-governmental agreement, allowing for the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology and facilities and components of such facilities pursuant to a subsequent agreement. The language is roughly similar to what Article 5(2) of the India-U.S. ‘123 agreement’ says except for using the imperative ‘shall be transferred’ instead of ‘may be transferred’ when referring to ENR items.
In separate interviews to The Hindu, Russian and Indian officials said the negotiations were complicated by the assurance Russia’s deputy Prime Minister Sergei Sobyanin gave National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan in Delhi early November that Moscow had no objection to including ENR within the ambit of cooperation. Mr. Sobyanin was not familiar with Russia’s policy on the matter and was unaware of the implications of the G8 commitment, Russian officials said. When the Indian side raised this assurance during the negotiations, Nikolai Spassky, deputy head of Rosatom, said the Russian Foreign Ministry insisted ENR transfers were not possible under Moscow’s new commitments.
Though the text was frozen late on December 2, Mr. Spassky sent a fax to Delhi two days later — less than 48 hours before Prime Minister Singh was to fly to Moscow — requesting, at the instance of the Russian foreign office, that the word “shall” be changed to “may” in the sentence dealing with future ENR transfers. The Russian Ministry also had last minute objections to the IGA’s ‘non-hindrance’ clause — which, it felt, granted legitimacy to India’s military nuclear sector. That is why there was uncertainty on the Indian side over whether the agreement would be initialled during Dr. Singh’s visit, with Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao striking a guarded tone at her departure-eve briefing. In the event, the Russian side backed off, but only after the Prime Minister raised the matter with President Dmitry Medvedev, Indian officials said.
Asked whether India might have had better luck on the ENR front with Russia had the agreement been concluded before the G8 summit at L’Aquilla this July, Russian and Indian officials said it was difficult to say. In fact, work on the IGA draft began this January. But with the Ministry of External Affairs blissfully unaware of the contents of the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s November 2008 ‘clean text’ banning ENR sales to non-NPT states, New Delhi did not accord the proposed agreement the sort of priority it deserved given persistent American attempts to restrict sensitive nuclear technology sales to India.
Russian officials said that if Delhi could not get everything it wanted out of the new agreement, Moscow too was disappointed by one aspect: the choice of Haripur in West Bengal as the site for the four additional Russian reactors India has committed to buy.
With Mamata Banerjee opposing land acquisition there, Rosatom feels poorly done by. “The best sites have been earmarked for American companies,” a Russian official said. He added that Haripur is on India’s east coast and could be vulnerable to tsunamis. According to him, when Mr. Spassky expressed a desire to visit the site earlier this year, the Department of Atomic Energy advised against it, saying it would “not be safe” because of local opposition. “As you can imagine, that did not make the Russian side feel very reassured about the choice of Haripur.”