Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Friday, Mar 31, 2006
Hawking India's soul?
It was indeed truly ironic. On the verge of concluding a historic agreement that would de facto allow India become an acknowledged nuclear weapon state, the actors in the play paid respects to Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of peace. Maybe, had the Indian leaders listened hard in the silence, they would have heard the Mahatma speaking with a voice of immeasurable sorrow, at the path his country was being led down.
India is the one nation that has the moral foundation to stand tall and define the path of goodwill. India's strength is not in its weapons of mass destruction. The Incredible India tourism campaign extols India as the land of peace, tranquillity and dharma, where the Buddha attained nirvana.
The argument that this deal is essential from an energy security standpoint is quite untenable. The price of oil is moderated by the simple market proposition of demand and supply. When energy needs are high, as they now are, the OPEC cartel keeps production tight and thereby allows prices to rise. This is legitimate and good for the OPEC countries but they have an underlying fear. If they allow prices to rise too much, then alternative energies become more relevant and fuel efficiency and conservation become mainstream.
This is already happening increased funding of wind farms, more exploration of marginal oil fields, the phoenix-like rise of the nuclear industry, and active measures by the automotive industry to extract greater fuel efficiency. It does not take much increase in demand to push up oil prices, and a small rise in conservation and alternative energy supply acts to decrease oil prices.
India's and China's energy needs will put pressure on the available supply of oil, and its price will tend to rise. This demand-side pressure is felt globally which then introduces the virtuous cycle of decreased consumption and alternative energy acceleration. Thus, India's needs become a global problem and the rest of the world responds in a manner that forces oil prices to fall.
So the only penalty that India will pay for its higher energy demand is the short-term increases in oil prices, while the dynamics of the energy industry work to counteract the demand-side pressure. It is certainly not a matter of security, only a matter of economics. This would certainly be a problem if India could not afford the cost of such increases. That is not the case. The cost of increased fuel prices accrues to all countries and does not disadvantage India in any singular way. Moreover, India's foreign exchange reserves are comfortably high, which are surely usable for purchases of oil.
THE NUCLEAR FALLACY
Is nuclear energy essential or suitable for India's needs? This does not appear to be provably valid. India does not have a sufficient indigenous supply of uranium, and thorium-based reactors, where India is at an advantage, are still in the experimental stage. India will have to import uranium in a world where supplies are running short, given the resurgence of nuclear energy globally.
Moreover, the most optimistic of scenarios do not contemplate nuclear energy as the panacea for India's energy needs. The average time to commission a nuclear reactor in India is five years and even the Planning Commission does not foresee more than about 6 per cent of India's needs being met by nuclear energy over the next 25 years. The better bet is coal, where reserves are considerable and recent technologies have made coal plants less damaging to the environment.
All said and done, when the spin masters are done spinning, it is clear that this deal is not really about India's energy security. It is a wink and a nod to admit a new member to a dirty club that permits India to keep its nuclear toys while allowing countries to sell it nuclear technology and fuel.
The question is not whether India should be independent enough to defend its strategic interests.
In the dangerous world that we live in, where men's follies are not easily contained, it is necessary to be well armed and protected. But this nuclear deal does not speak to our needs, but to our greed.
In what manner of war would we need more than ten nuclear weapons, let alone hundreds? When we embark on such a foolhardy, immoral voyage, we break our own tryst with destiny.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
An India that makes more nuclear weapons and deploys them on land, sea and air, is going to make China, Pakistan and others very nervous. They will need to be seen responding and so they will use their resources to respond, which will cause India to counter-respond with more nuclear weapons of greater complexity. We have seen this spiral of senseless competition bankrupt the Soviet Union in a futile attempt to match the US in the nuclear missile number game.
India's needs are in many ways transparently clear. It wants a seat at the global table, where it has a credible say in the affairs of nations. In the abstract, the case for India to occupy a seat at the U.N. Security Council is very strong.
India's path to this objective is unfortunately obstructed by its very own actions. With the current nuclear deal, it is almost guaranteed that China will veto India's ascension to the Security Council. Moreover, this deal is an abject tutorial to other nations on how to worm one's way to the nuclear table. It punches a hole in the efforts at nuclear non-proliferation and controls.
Let us consider an alternative strategy, called the Nuclear Dharma Treaty (NDT), more in tune with India's glorious past of right thought and action. Under the NDT, India voluntarily caps its nuclear arsenal at its current state of about 100 weapons, which should be more than sufficient for any conceivable threat.
This set of weapons can be upgraded but never enlarged. It also commits to creating the most transparent nuclear programme in the world, opening up all its nuclear reactors under international auspices for operations and research to benefit all mankind. In return, the world guarantees India the nuclear fuel it requires for its civilian energy needs and elects India to the UN Security Council with the enthusiastic approval of all the permanent members, including China.
WIN-WIN FOR ALL
In this approach, all parties achieve their objectives. India's energy needs are satisfied as the world will have no concerns that nuclear fuel supplied will facilitate arms production. India's nuclear strategic objectives in terms of a credible deterrent will be satisfied at a level that will not allow adventurism by hostile powers.
The US should be happy with this outcome, as it can have a valuable democratic ally at the Security Council as well as be able to supply nuclear technology. China, with no reason to fear a hawkish India producing nuclear arms at will, should support this deal readily. Existing nuclear weapons states will be under real pressure to uphold their commitment to reducing their nuclear stock.
All in all, the world would be guaranteed a more peaceful future. And, with pride and dignity, India will have earned its rightful place as a full-fledged permanent member of the UN Security Council.
If such a strategy were to be implemented and a deal were to be reached with the US and other superpowers, it is well possible that future Indian leaders, bowing their heads in respect at the Raj Ghat, will hear the Mahatma chuckling and murmuring in approval.
(The author, resident in the United States, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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