Pokhran tests: 20 years on, here’s how India became a legitimate nuclear power
Lalit Mansingh was secretary (west) in the external affairs ministry in May 1998 when India conducted five nuclear tests on May 11 and 13, 1998, at the Pokhran range in Rajasthan.
The first three detonations took place simultaneously at 3.45pm on May 11. These included a 45 kT thermonuclear device, a 15kt fission device and a 0.2 kt sub-kiloton (which is less than a kiloton) device. The two nuclear devices detonated simultaneously on May 13 were also in the sub-kiloton range, 0.5 kT and 0.3 kT.
The test happened months after then foreign secretary K Raghunath told his US counterpart that India did not have any intention of testing a nuclear device. “The test was a secret, known only to five people; that certainly did not include me or even the foreign secretary,” Mansingh recalled.
The test opened floodgates of trouble for India: sanctions, economic and military, and interactional isolation. “It was certainly the biggest challenge Indian foreign policy establishment faced in a long, long time”, said Mansingh, who later became the foreign secretary as well as the country’s envoy to the US.
The immediate challenge was to mitigate international opposition and eventually bridge the trust gap with the US. Immediately after the tests, the US suspended foreign secretary-level talks; over the following two years, it put more than 200 Indian entities under the sanctions list.
The list included not only the facilities of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and entities of Department of Space, but also a clutch of private sector firms that had worked for them.
The now fabled discussions between Strobe Talbot, then US secretary of state, and then foreign minister Jaswant Singh followed — they were held in seven countries, 10 cities, and included 14 rounds of talks.
For Americans and the west, India was gatecrashing the nuclear club. With Pakistan seeking nuclear parity, the Americans feared South Asia would become a nuclear flashpoint. A great deal of the Talbot-Singh conversation covered this ground.
“I hope my regard for the way Jaswant advanced his nation’s interests and sought, as he put it, to harmonise US-India relations speaks for itself...,” Talbot wrote in his book Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb. “These talks provided the basis for the next stage of India-US relationship, and eventually paved the way for the India-US nuclear deal,” says Mansingh.
The nuclear deal, pursued by the Manmohan Sigh-George Bush Jr administrations, resulted in India getting a seat at the nuclear high table for all practical purposes without signing the Non-Proliferation treaty. The framework for this agreement was a July 18, 2005, joint statement by then Indian PM Manmohan Singh and then US President George W Bush.
This led to India putting some of its reactors under the India-specific International Atomic Energy (IAEA) safeguards, and getting a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the elite club of countries that deals with trade in nuclear technology and fissile materials.
The NSG waiver on September 2008 lifted an over three-decade, US-led world embargo on civilian nuclear cooperation with India that was brought upon India after it first tested a nuclear device in 1974 and in 1998. The waiver earned India the right to trade for civilian nuclear fuel and technology.
It was expected to give a boost to nuclear power in India’s energy basket. Back at the time, India’s 22 nuclear plants were operating at under 40% capacity. India subsequently started signing deals with foreign countries to start nuclear parks in the country. It signed agreements with Russia, France and the US. Except with the Russians, the other plans ran into a host of issues ranging from land acquisition to liability.
The share of nuclear power in the total electricity generated in the country in the year 2016-17 was a mere 3.05%. According to the data from Department of Atomic Energy, the present installed nuclear capacity is 6780 MW and it will reach 13480 MW by the year 2024 with the completion of projects under construction.
In June 2017, the Government accorded administrative approval and financial sanction for 12 more reactors with a total capacity of 9000 MW that are scheduled to be completed progressively by 2031. Together with the capacity being implemented by BHAVINI, the total nuclear power capacity will reach 22480 MW by the year 2031. “But we all hoped the nuclear power production in the country would see a quantum jump because of the deal. That didn’t happen”, said Mansingh.