M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian career diplomat who has served in Islamabad, Kabul, Tashkent and Moscow.

Article Courtesy: Strategic Culture Foundation

The national debate in India about the use of nuclear energy took a giant leap forward on Friday. Sidestepping ideological and political baggage, there has been a powerful civil society initiative to get the judiciary to intervene in the government’s nuclear energy policy. A group of prominent personalities have come together to petition the Supreme Court in New Delhi.

The low-key “agitational” part of the Indian debate, meanwhile, has acquired a degree of militancy when on Friday protestors stepped up their campaign against the Koodankulam nuclear power plantin the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which is in advanced stage of construction and expected to go “critical” soon.

The trend toward “extra-parliamentary” politics in India is gathering dynamic. The recurring pattern is of established political parties failing to grasp the groundswell of public opinion and then scrambling to tap into the emergent situations to derive mileage in the increasingly competitive environment of electoral politics in India’s coalition era.

What the petition before the Supreme court underscores is that many streams are converging on India’s political economy – a government that has lost its moral standing amidst the tidal waves of corruption sweeping the country; all-round failure of the established political parties to ensure democratic governance; India’s embrace of neo-liberal economic policies and the resultant contradictions; and, alienation among the civil society and its growing belief that recourse to “extra-parliamentary” methods is the only way of forcing the political class to be sensitive to popular concerns.

The trajectory of these concurrent processes is bound to have far-reaching consequences for India’s power generation capacity and indeed the entire future of its nuclear industry, apart from impacting significantly on the country’s strategic partnership with the United States, France and Russia.

Comprehensive review

Friday’s move by a group of high-ranking government officials to come together with two non-governmental organizations to file a petition in the Supreme Court vastly expands the frontiers of the national debate in India in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in Japan on nuclear-power based power generation.

The petitioners sought a ruling from India’s apex court to force the government to undertake a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of the nuclear power plants in the country. There is skepticism whether nuclear power generated through the expensive imported reactors is affordable for the ordinary Indian. The government so far managed to blithely glide over this criticism. Experts have shown that the kind of heavy investment that India proposes to making for nuclear-power production is sufficient to tap energy from other non-conventional, “environment-friendly” sources, such as solar, wind and tidal energy, which India has in abundance.

The petitioners clarified that they aren’t per se against nuclear energy; rather, the risks and costs associated with nuclear energy must be scientifically evaluated in the Indian context and must be factored in risk and cost calculations, and, furthermore, that fool-proof level of safety must be ensured through genuinely-autonomous regulatory mechanisms.

They alleged that “under the pressure of foreign countries and the multi-billion dollar nuclear industry, the Government has been pushing forward an expensive, unviable and dangerous nuclear power program without proper safety assessment and without a thorough comparative cost-benefit analysis vis-à-vis other sources of energy, especially renewable sources.”

The government decisions on the purchase of nuclear reactors from abroad are perceived as often heavily influenced by extraneous factors, which are not relevant to the energy program. At the critical final stages of the negotiations over the civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the US, the Indian government made an extraordinary commitment to Washington in writing that the country would import nuclear reactors from America alone for producing at least 10000 megawatts of power.

How the government could make a blanket pledge on a matter that is commercial still remains unanswered, but this commitment is today sticking out like a sore thumb in the US-India ties with secretary of state Hillary Clinton reminding Delhi even last week to fulfill the promise.

Demand for transparency

What strengthens the petitioners’ argument is a candid admission recently by the former chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission Anil Kakodkar (who played a key role in negotiating the US-India nuclear deal): “”We have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and of the companies there… America, Russia and France were the countries that we made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them for nuclear projects.”

There has been growing criticism that most of the nuclear reactor and equipment imports for which orders are being made by the government are of extremely dubious quality and safety standard. The petition criticizes the upcoming Jaitapur nuclear power plant (considered to be the world’s largest) in the western state of Rajasthan as a case study to highlight the “mindless decision-making” in Delhi”.

Three factors can be noted. One, the petitioners sought a court ruling to freeze the construction of all power projects till the completion of the safety-and-cost-benefit analysis. If the court grants a stay order, it affects all projects in the pipeline.

Two, the petitioners have questioned the constitutional propriety of the nuclear liability law legislated by the government last year. They complained that the existing legislation limits the liability of the operator to an abysmally low figure of approximately 300 million dollars (the remaining damages are to be made good by the Government at the cost of exchequer), and also excludes the liability of the operators in certain circumstances.

The petitioners alleged that the nuclear liability law was drafted under the influence of the foreign nuclear industry and, in effect, it provides a huge subsidy to the foreign reactor manufacturers, as it exempts them from the likely burden of an accident liability, and also provides a huge disincentive to them to invest in safety technologies that are usually expensive.

The petition comes at a most awkward time for the Indian government. On the one hand, it lacks the kind of political clout that is needed to amend the nuclear liability law in the directions that the US is demanding. A series of corruption scandals have seriously weakened the government’s standing. On the other hand, there is relentless American pressure to fulfill the Faustian promise that as quid pro quo for the 2008 nuclear deal, India would generate tens of billions of dollars worth business for the US nuclear industry.

The petitioners are now seeking that the government doesn’t succumb to the US pressure to dilute the nuclear liability legislation, but on the contrary to strengthen it further.

Converging streams

The third and most immediate fallout is going to be on the Koodankulam nuclear power plant, which is being built by Russia. The simmering agitation against the plant’s construction is showing signs of shifting gear. The agitators have blockaded access to the construction site. A confrontational situation may develop, with risk of violence. What seemed a local agitation is poised to transform as a national issue. Political parties have been dancing around the Koodankulam issue, but the time is coming for them to take a stance.

In varying degrees, the snowballing controversy will cast shadows on India’s external relations as well.The US-India relationship is at low ebb currently and the two sides have been keenly searching for means to give new verve to it. Barack Obama’s priority is to generate jobs in the US economy and boost US’s exports, and nuclear commerce with India is a promising avenue. The Americans have ben flaunting a sense of injury that India didn’t fulfill the expectations raised by the nuclear deal and hinting that their enthusiasm for India on attendant issues such as pushing India’s case for membership of the Nuclear Supply Group and various other technology regimes, may suffer.

Ironically, the Indian debate is livening up just as the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe arrives in Delhi on October 20. Juppe is expected to focus on India’s proposed purchase of two 1650-megawatt nuclear reactors from France, which is at an advanced stage of negotiations. Ironically, the Indian discourses have doubted the reactors of France’s Areva as of dubious technology.

Equally, nuclear cooperation is traditional to India’s relationship with the former Soviet Union and Russia and is today a major dimension to the strategic ties. Much hope was placed on this sphere of cooperation to lift the entire dynamics of India-Russia economic ties, which have been listless through much of the past two decades.Nuclear cooperation is a key agenda item in the annual India-Russia summits, including the forthcoming one in Moscow in December.

In immediate terms, the interests devolve upon the situation around Koodankulam. However, what the petition before the Supreme court underscores is that many streams are converging on India’s political economy – a government that has lost its moral standing amidst the tidal waves of corruption sweeping the country; all-round failure of the established political parties to ensure democratic governance; India’s embrace of neo-liberal economic policies and the resultant contradictions; and, alienation among the civil society and its growing belief that recourse to “extra-parliamentary” methods is the only way of forcing the political class to be sensitive to popular concerns.