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June 22, 2011
The Indo-US civil nuclear deal was motivated by many reasons. Among many tangible gains, the most important one for India was the beginning of the end of the technology sanctions used to punish it for its nuclear outlier status. While the sanctions go back to India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, over the years they spread into thousands of technological sectors including software and pharmaceuticals. Because of the “dual use” nature of much technology, much of this badly affected India’s civilian sectors.

With post-reform growth, this liability has become an absurdity — Tata Steel, for example, came to possess dual use technology when it bought Britain’s Corus Steel and was banned from using its knowhow in India.

The nuclear deal broke the keystone in this arch of technological sanctions by getting the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the high temple of technology controls, to exempt India. Bits and pieces of the remaining archway are now crumbling. Germany last week elevated India’s access to sensitive technologies to the same level as other European Union members.

The US has also made India eligible for more technologies, though at a painfully slow rate. President Barack Obama last year committed to making India a member of the four main technology control agreements — the NSG, the Wassenaar Convention, the Australia Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime. The latest NSG discussions, in which the US has argued the case that India is not obligated to sign the NPT to join the NSG, are a sign Washington is working to fulfilling its policy promise.

It is another question as to whether New Delhi is doing enough to further its own cause. Countries making the case that India should not merely be exempted from the blasphemy laws of nonproliferation but also be made a member of the global nuclear synod need backup from India. New Delhi is still moving slowly on tightening its export control regimes — necessary to reassure countries that sensitive knowhow sent to India will not find its way into the hands of third countries.

New Delhi has half-heartedly begun engaging the support of industries like chemicals which are wary of the costs such regimes may mean. If India is to be a global manufacturer it needs to enter the high-technology realms where it can compete against China. This will be impossible if it does not seize the opportunity provided by the present international state of affairs. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh likes to speak of India becoming a “knowledge superpower”. He needs to do more on the international front to make that happen.