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Head in the sand
Just as foreign secretary, Ranjan Mathai was getting ready to host a meeting of 'sherpas', in the run-up to the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul earlier this year, a US nuclear advocacy group, Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) surprised South Block with a nuclear materials security index in which India scored poorly. The country did very well on parameters like on-site physical protection of nuclear materials, commitment and implementation of UNSCR 1540, response capabilities and control and accounting procedures. But the index pointed out that rampant corruption and lack of transparency of procedures, apart from other extraneous societal factors were threatening India's nuclear materials from being secure. Needless to add, India's nuclear establishment blew a blood vessel.
On the overall rankings, India came in at a lowly 28, not far from genuinely scary countries like Pakistan and North Korea. In their press statement, NTI said, "Australia ranks number one out of the 32 states with weapons-usable nuclear materials, with Hungary, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Austria rounding out the top five. UK ranks highest among nuclear-armed states at 10;the United States ranks 13th. Among countries without weapons-usable nuclear materials, Denmark earns the top spot."
The index is welcome, because it attempts to quantify security parameters of a sector that, too often, is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Besides, it's important for every country to constantly revalue its own security parameters.
That said, the above statement is one of the reasons why it's so difficult to take this index seriously. First, neither Australia, nor any of the others adorning the top of the list are nuclear "weapon" states. The index categorises states as those with "weapons-usable" materials and those without. It would have been much more realistic to classify states according to their weapons capabilities. So yes, take Australia or Germany;they have materials that can be used in nuclear weapons, but they don't have a military programme. That automatically puts them in a completely different category. So you can't really club Israel or India along with say, Hungary or the Czech Republic, or Switzerland or Austria.
Related to this is the fact that countries with active weapons programmes would naturally have parallel and non-intersecting systems separating civilian and military structures. The index does not distinguish between civilian and military systems. That makes it weak. No self-respecting nuclear weapon state would put on public record the security structures of the nuclear materials for their weapons programme. And neither should they. The authors said they used public domain information to write the index, which automatically means their information is incomplete.
The Indian government threw a fit that NTI's partner, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which crunched the data and worked out the index, added societal factors like corruption to "cloud" the index. Actually, the addition of corruption parameters are probably necessary, because ultimately proliferation, diversion or security breaches will be done by human beings, who would be rendered more vulnerable in a pervasively corrupt system.
According to NTI, India blew them away repeatedly, and would not give them the time of day. They even believe the UPA government didn't like their index because it would be grist to the mill for sections like the Kudankulam protesters. That's nonsense.
On the Indian side, nobody in the system believes that NTI has honourable intentions - "they just want us to tell them where we keep stuff, " said one indignant official.
The Indian nuclear establishment is famously insular and nothing gets them back into their burrows faster than an American organisation giving them a hard time on nuclear issues. It took several years of coaxing by George W Bush for India to separate its nuclear programmes and become more globally engaged as a nuclear power. NTI officials found their phone calls and emails were falling into a black hole.
Next week, NTI is trying to breathe fresh life into the nuclear index project by calling in a dialogue (at 'one-point-five' track) to talk about a future security regime and what it should look like. It would be too much to expect South Block to be there. But clearly, India has decided to engage. Former DAE chief Anil Kakodkar will represent India (if he gets to travel to the US, that is). That's very important and has to be done. India cannot claim to be a "responsible" nuclear power by being lax about its nuclear materials. But equally, India cannot be a responsible power and not engage meaningfully with the world about its nuclear structures. India is different from Pakistan, China and North Korea. But we're the only ones who know how much. And some of that knowledge can surely be shared.
In the 21st century, NGOs and advocacy groups often drive the global agenda on many multilateral issues. As Prof Rajaraman, noted nuclear policy analyst says, "India's interests don't benefit if we stay away. "
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