On August 2008 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) undertook a revolutionary measure in Vienna when it approved the India-Specific Safeguards Agreement (ISSA) to facilitate the import of nuclear reactors, fuel and technology. As a next step India has to acquire an unconditional waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to engage in civil nuclear energy trade. However, India faces a tough sell at the NSG that was formed to sanction India for conducting its Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) in 1974.
The Vienna meeting of August 2008 elicited mixed reactions. Some endorsed the ISSA as a step towards facilitating nuclear commerce with India; others voiced "concerns" about the likely impact the deal might have on the non-proliferation regime. Thus, while the agreement was endorsed by the UK, France, Russia, Finland, Germany, Brazil, South Africa, Canada, Algeria and Chile, countries like Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Ireland indicated their reservations on the ISSA. The matter is further complicated by India's demand for a "clean and unconditional" waiver from the regulations formulated by the NSG on international nuclear trade with the US making a distinction between "clean" and "unconditional" waiver. The scheduled NSG meeting on August 21-22 for considering India's case is shrouded in mystery.
The reservationists argue that the NSG guidelines cannot be modified in India's favour as it has not acceded to the NPT and CTBT. They apprehend that any relaxation of NSG rules for India might set a bad precedent for problematical countries. This would obfuscate the endeavour for strengthening the non-proliferation regime and further complicate global efforts for achieving nuclear disarmament. The reservationists also demand a pledge from India of no more nuclear tests and adherence to an Additional Protocol to verify its compliance with the NPT.
The 45-nation NSG must understand that India will never accede to the NPT, which legitimizes nuclear apartheid between nuclear haves and have-nots. Though India is not a signatory to the NPT, it has adhered to the principles of the treaty. India has maintained a responsible and restrained position on its nuclear and dual-use export policies. India has additionally agreed to place 14 of its indigenous nuclear reactors under IAEA safeguards as envisaged in the 18 July 2005 agreement. India's resolve to place 65 per cent of its civil nuclear reactors under IAEA safeguards as laid down in the Separation Plan of March 2006 is a voluntary step to enhance the physical security of its civil nuclear reactors under specifications which are of international standards.
The NSG members fear that a clean and unconditional waiver to India will set a bad precedent for some "shady states" in the non-proliferation regime. There is little substance in this argument. The IAEA Director, El Baradei, has opined that the ISSA satisfies non-proliferation safeguards standards. With a clean exemption from the NSG, India will be able to fulfill its own part of the agreement: create a state-of-the art facility monitored by the IAEA and begin a new export control regime that will strengthen the non-proliferation regime. Thus, far from setting a bad precedent, India's efforts could be an example for other nations.
In a world witnessing a rapid spread of nuclear technology and materials, both overt and covert, a universal non-proliferation regime can hardly be achieved by excluding states that have advanced nuclear technology. The Asia Pacific Security Survey Report 2007 has prognosticated that nuclear proliferation will be an issue of concern for the short and long-term, particularly in South and East Asia. It becomes essential therefore to have India on board. Incidentally, India has committed to harmonize its laws on export controls with those of the supplier countries. This will ensure that nuclear materials do not fall into the wrong hands.
The world community must appreciate that India has taken a historic step by agreeing to implement the Separation Plan of March 2006. As a reciprocal step, the NSG must display maturity and recognize India's restraint to reinforce the non-proliferation regime. Incidentally, all the founding members of the NSG (US, Russia, France, Britain, Germany, Japan and Canada) acknowledge India's status and believe that it can effectively contribute to strengthening the non-proliferation regime.
As for India, the choice is clear. India will quit the deal if an unacceptable waiver is forced upon it. This will not only scuttle global non-proliferation efforts but set a bad precedent among the new nuclear states, demonstrating that a responsible record on nuclear matters is not enough to terminate nuclear apartheid, since the NSG prefers to live in a whimsical nuclear past "pursuing extraneous agendas." On the other hand, a clean and unconditional waiver will be a diplomatic gesture by the NSG to India to strengthen the non-proliferation regime.