John Kerry’s visit to India was important in many ways. What was also on his agenda was the operationalising the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement. When Kerry announced his approval of the idea behind sabka saath, sabka vikaas, it was rightly understood the civilian nuclear programme would be an important part of discussions in New Delhi. Before his visit, policymakers were looking for ways to indicate India’s commitment to the programme, and more importantly, to opening the doors for foreign players.
Recently, the Indian government’s decision to ratify the IAEA Additional Protocol was highlighted widely. While it is, undoubtedly, a step which shows that India’s civilian nuclear programme is on the government’s agenda, it is unclear why it is being touted as a landmark event. This decision is, at best, one which shows that India is willing to stand by existing promises, as opposed to progress in this regard. Indeed, if India were to not ratify the Protocol, it would not make any sense at all, since the protocol was introduced especially for India after series of negotiations and merely relate to IAEA inspections of civilian reactors, leaving military ones untouched.
The decision to ratify the Additional Protocol itself has been widely appreciated, nevertheless, and it is likely that some stakeholders will now push for removal or a substantial amendment of the nuclear liability laws (even referred to as the “nuclear fog”) as part of continuing legislative ‘reform’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to discuss these matters extensively during his interaction with head of states from Japan, Australia, China and the USA over the next two months, and many are arguing the only way to truly move forward with foreign participation in India’s civilian programme is by addressing existing concerns relating to the liability law.
Previously, I have argued that some of the enthusiasm calling for major changes to the liability law is misplaced, especially considering how some commentators suggest that the current government’s majority in the house can be used to expedite the process. As concerns keep emerging about the manner in which the government may circumvent or dilute the liability law substantially, policymakers must ensure that while India must stand by promises which have been made before the international community and its people, the momentum is not exploited by some stakeholders to bring in legislative changes which may prove to be detrimental to India’s interests. Leading the charge, undoubtedly, will be the USA. What remains to be seen is whether the government can stand its ground on the issue of supplier liability (perhaps not acceptable in its current form).