A Russia-type situation has been reached with the French on civil nuclear cooperation. With New Delhi still to cross the safeguards hurdle at the International Atomic Energy Agency, a bilateral agreement with the French to build nuclear power plants in India is still some distance away.
“I would be very surprised if it happens,” a top Ministry of External Affairs official said about the bilateral civil nuclear accord with Paris being clinched when French President Nicholas Sarkozy visits New Delhi for Republic Day next month.
The official stressed that while it was unlikely that such an agreement would be reached during Sarkozy’s visit, the two sides were continuing work on a draft agreement.
Days before arriving in India, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said: “We hope to sign with India in the near future a bilateral agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation to further the development of our relations in this field, including the nuclear production of electricity…. I would like the President of the republic’s visit next January to provide the opportunity for agreement on a text.”
India and France signed a declaration to use nuclear energy for peaceful purpose back in February 2006 during the visit of then French President Jacques Chirac.
The countries had agreed in principle to set up nuclear power projects as well as cooperation in “nuclear fuel management”.
Like Russia, France is clear that it can only begin tangible civil nuclear cooperation with India once the hurdles of the IAEA and Nuclear Suppliers Group are cleared.
Though a deal for the construction of additional nuclear reactors in Koodanakulam and other parts of the country by the Russians has been ready, it has not taken off because of the IAEA and NSG hold-ups.
An Indian team of negotiators will speak with IAEA officials in the first week of January, but the external affairs ministry official was wary of giving any timeframe to clinch the talks.
“We are still talking to the IAEA about the content of the India-specific safeguards agreement,” the official stressed.
Asked at what stage would India bring an agreed draft of the safeguards agreement to be put before the United Progressive Alliance-Left panel, the official said it would happen before the text goes before the IAEA board of governors.
Obviously, New Delhi’s goal is to sew up a final text before the IAEA board meets, so that the document can be circulated to all members.
As per the IAEA schedule, the next meeting of the board is to take place from March 3 to 7.
Given that domestic uncertainty continues to cloud the civil nuclear deal, it is evident that the end of the road for the bilateral civil nuclear accord is still some distance away.
Some diplomats this correspondent spoke to expressed the fear that India was expending its diplomatic and political goodwill at a time when it was still to get its domestic house in order on the civil nuclear accord.