Democratizing Nuclear Debate in India

Avilash Roul

Democracy and Nuclear issues cannot go hand in hand. While civilization flourishes through public participation – a distinct principle of democracy, nuclear (as a weapon) eradicates a large number of populations when it is used. Therefore, nuclear is anti-thesis to democratic principles. Any discussion on nuclear related issue, may it be national security, production of nuclear energy and its derivatives, are bound to be anti-democratic, which has been maintained its status quo in all nuclear capable countries around the world. The irony is that two oldest and largest democracies (or, twin-pillars of democracy!) are engaged in a civilian nuclear cooperation lacking democratic approval. While the US Senators and Representatives are discussing threadbare, India’s Members of Parliament (MPs) are probably in the dark. Can it be approved by the representatives of people in both the countries? is it necessary for a public approval at least in India on the nuclear deal?

In a recent letter to Parliamentarians in India, a group of nine retired nuclear experts, who obliged to serve in various nuclear establishments under New Delhi, called for a parliamentary debate on the much-hyped (July-18 and March 3) Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. At last, these experts come out from the hard shell to debate on nuclear issue which is hither to outside public gaze; even MPs can’t raise this issue in the highest Constitutional forum, Parliament. Why these nine experts demanded/requested for a democratic debate on the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation? Are they in right path by initiating a debate in Parliament on a much classified issue? Were there such precedents in Parliament to discuss nuclear related issue?

The nine-member group wanted that Parliamentarians should recognize the fundamental facts of India’s indigenous nuclear science and technology achievements. If one would look into the answers of the questions put by MPs regarding nuclear/atomic energy in the successive Parliament sessions during last decade, the conclusion is Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has deliberately avoided disclosing all the details. The first retaliatory question may be asked to these nine members group that were they adhered to this public discussion on nuclear establishment when they served in charge de affairs in their capacity. Not at all. In fact, few among these nine experts, after their retirement, disclosed several concerns related to India’s nuclear establishment in writing through various papers. Notwithstanding of sidelining these experts, the appeal letter to the MPs is a welcome step in right direction.

The nuclear establishment in India is a most classified area, where no public scrutiny, no enquiry commission, no judicial intervention are allowed or for that matter tolerable. Empowered with Special 1962 Atomic Energy Act, the DAE is exempted from any such scrutiny. The department and its bureaucracy, under direct control of Prime Minister, who is first among equal people’ representative, are most pampered establishment in India. It is understandable as long as it makes nuclear weapon. The reason put forward by India’s in-built so-called and only patriots security experts (a self-claimed minorities) that nuclear issues are great concern for national security which should not be discussed in public. The public discussion will tantamount to create an un-imaginable massive threat to national security.

But, a former scientists, a former bureaucrats, a former minister in charge of the defense portfolio, can write, talk, expose drawbacks after retirement only to create ruckus in general public life as well as un-necessary disruption of Parliamentary proceedings ignoring important issues which matters most. Why should a few only manage or control national security? The question is whose security and who is controlling/managing it. The public has a right to know about the security of the nation; how the professionals are managing it; what are the threats and so on. As long as the public is kept in abeyance on the most important security issues, a huge country like India will be really in serious threat from terrorism and other threats. The ownership of national security should not be bestowed upon a few.

Can one MP get access to information on nuclear issue while Parliament is in motion? No. Two senior leaders from coalition partners in present United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government seemed to be frustrated by honestly stating their ignorance on nuclear issue in a public meeting in August 9 in New Delhi. They have tried to get some kind of information but as usual, failed. Can the historical Right to Information Act be applicable to Nuclear or DEA? No. From the beginning, the RTI Act has mentioned that national security issue can’t be brought into this fold! Parliamentary oversight of all bilateral/multilateral engagement has to be enacted to make it more democratic as well as effective.

Post 1998, the situation has changed between India and Pakistan on the nuclear front. Therefore, it is an open secret of the nuclear weaponisation in South Asia. While there is a ‘civilian’ nuclear cooperation is on the move, one ‘civilian’ has to be taken into confidence. Hence, it’s imperative to debate and discuss the civilian aspect of the nuclear deal, i.e., energy. The discussion on the nuclear establishment in Parliament is necessary to make it a successful energy base for energy hungry India. Even, the public discussion will minimize the drawbacks of uranium mining or waste disposal, the ugly face of peaceful nuclear endeavor.

Author Note
Avilash Roul, New Delhi based environment and development analyst, is presently with Bank Information Center. Views expressed here are personal.