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Play harder tennis and catch more fish

Besides nuclear knowhow, there's lot more that the Indo-US deal can get us. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri explains. This deal’s a steal

world Updated: Aug 30, 2007 17:54 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

The India-US civilian nuclear deal may help you catch more fish and, possibly, smash the tennis ball harder. Difficult to believe? Here’s why.

One of the unrecognised gains of the civilian nuclear agreement is that, besides nuclear knowhow, the deal will give India access to a swathe of so-called dual-use technologies.

Hidden gains

Sports gear: Lightweight and unbreakable tennis rackets, golf clubs and fishing poles.

X-ray machines: Medical and dental imaging machines using radioactive cobalt-60.

Space prog: Latest in telemetry, propulsion, guidance, speciality materials, nanotech.

Defence sector: Components for developing a defence system against Pakistan’s rocket arsenal.

Dual-use technologies earn their name because they can be used for both military and civilian purposes. Since India is under Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) sanctions, such technologies are denied to the country even for civilian use for fear they may be covertly used for military purposes.

Currently, an array of seemingly innocuous technologies are restricted, affecting, among other things, sports equipment, X-ray machines and fertiliser production.

The reason: the hi-tech fibres and filaments often used to make lightweight and unbreakable tennis rackets, golf clubs and fishing poles can also be used in the uranium-enrichment process. Also affected by the various sanctions are medical and dental imaging machines that use radioactive cobalt-60 and similar substances. Advanced technologies used to make ammonia and fertiliser can also be used to make heavy water.

Ultra low-speed photography equipment, pressure-measuring instruments and some types of communications switching equipment are also banned.

The famous supercomputer ban imposed by the US in the early 1990s was also a consequence of such sanctions. Sales of Sony’s Play Station 2 to India were under a cloud because the gaming device fell under Japanese dual-use export controls. NSG sanctions lie behind the recent arrest of Indian scientists trying to buy heat-resistant silicon chips in the US. All these and a host of other tech barriers will disappear if the nuclear deal is completed: a benefit of de facto nuclear club membership.

US commerce department and Indian industry representatives say the biggest problem with technology sanctions is the “uncertainty principle”. Technology evolves faster than the sanctions written to control their export. It isn’t uncommon for an Indian request for technology to be turned down because a US official, befuddled by an archaic rules book, decides not to take chances. The 123 Agreement would mean the official would give India the benefit of the doubt.

Over the past two years, the Bush administration cleared a large number of sensitive technologies for Indian use. “Completion of the deal would mean all would become available,” says Anupam Srivastava, an export control expert at the University of Georgia. US approvals for Indian technology licence applications has risen to 99 per cent since 2004. Chinese approvals are less than 90 per cent. The US still keeps a group of non-proliferation category technology sanctions in place and these are reflected in the NSG’s Category 2 technology list. The passage of the 123 Agreement would open these doors for India.

Among the gains for India:

* India’s space programme will match the nuclear industry in benefits. Says Srivastava, “A whole range of technologies in telemetry, propulsion, guidance, speciality materials, nanotechnology would become eligible for transfer to India.” NASA and the Indian Space Research Organisation have already created joint production units in preparation.

* India’s defence industry would be eligible for a number of military technologies. These would include components and subsystems needed to develop a missile defence system against Pakistan’s rocket arsenal. One big area: so-called advanced conventional munitions, which are used by soldiers on counter-terrorism and peacekeeping exercises. The sky is the limit, say both Indian and US officials.

Senior Indian officials say the 123 Agreement provides a certain “comfort level” for foreign tech firms. It makes a big difference to them if a country is under NSG sanctions. “Even three years ago, if you broached the topic of transferring or buying a sensitive technology to India, the other side would quietly change the topic,” one said. That mindset is now on the verge of becoming history.