Opinion

India and the perils of being an outlier

M Ramesh | Updated on May 24, 2019 Published on May 24, 2019

Sticking by principles By staying out of key treaties, India has lost out on faster economic growth   -  PeopleImages

Taking the high moral ground, India has kept out of the NPT, CTBT and now the BRI. But this hasn’t done us much good

India has a history of choosing principle over pragmatism. From turning its back on the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty and its sibling, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, to siding with Palestine against Israel and keeping away from the Refugee Treaty, India has taken a moral ground at the risk of coming across in the eyes of the world as a recalcitrant heel-digger.

Now one wonders whether India’s decision to keep out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative is yet another instance of India refusing to join the global mainstream.

However, the triumph of principle over pragmatism doesn’t seem to have done India much good.

Non-Proliferation Treaty

Take the example of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which entered into force in March 1970. Few can disagree that the treaty is discriminatory. The voice of the nuclear weapons states comes out clear in it, saying ‘we shall have nuclear weapons, but you shall not get yourselves one’.

The fact that in the following years and right up to the peak of the Cold War, the nuclear weapon states, principally the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union, went on unrelentingly producing more and more nuclear weapons (“vertical proliferation”) lent strength to India’s stand. And having just fought a war with a nuclear weapons possessor, China, in 1962, and having faced intimidatory moves by the US in the Indian Ocean in the height of the war with Pakistan in 1971, there was no way India would deny itself the opportunity to get itself a nuclear umbrella.

But look at the consequences of the decision to keep out. It set off an armament race, impelling Pakistan to also acquire nuclear weapons, with the help of an obliging China. In the end, Pakistan possessing nuclear weapons — in larger numbers than India — has caused the country to level with India, thereby blunting India’s undeniable edge in conventional weapons superiority.

Alongside, keeping out of NPT lost India access to technology and fuels for nuclear energy, leaving the country to fend for itself. Where did we end up after 50 years? A measly 6,870 MW of nuclear power capacity, when it could have easily been ten times as much. It is logical that with access to cheap, clean nuclear power, Indian economy would have fared much better.

CTBT

Take the case of CTBT, which again India was correct in describing the treaty as discriminatory. As many as 185 countries have signed the treaty since it opened for signature in 1996, of whom 168 have also ratified it. Yet the treaty is not yet on because under a clause in it, the 44 countries that possess nuclear capabilities and research reactors have to sign and ratify, otherwise the treaty won’t come into force.

Eight of the 44 have not ratified and India is one of them. The eight is an elite club that includes China and the US; but though China and the US have not ratified (India has not even signed), they are ‘in’, funding and participating as observers. The US has been a big funder for the CTBT Organisation (CTBTO) that is meant to bring the treaty to fruition; China actively participates by allowing test detecting and monitoring stations on its soil.

The CTBTO is pleading with India to join at least as an observer and there is no indication of India saying yes. By staying well away, India only loses in being close to emerging technologies such as radionuclide, hydro-acoustic and infra-sound that the CTBTO uses for detecting and monitoring tests.

GM crops

Take another instance — genetically modified foods. Well, saying no to GM crops is not quite due to any ‘principles’, but nevertheless one that shows India as an out-of-liner. This one that hurts more than the other stay-outs. But for this meaningless, Luddite-ist self-denial, India would be well-positioned to take US’ place as a major supplier of soya beans to China as the US vacates the space due to the trade war with China.

Delhi University has developed a GM mustard that is drought-resistant and can raise yields by 25 per cent; the seed was approved by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in 2016, but the government is yet to allow its use — and the farmers are losing an opportunity.

GM crops are rising the world over, the area under which has grown from 1.7 million hectares in 1997 to 230 million hectares now. The US, Brazil, Argentina, and Canada have all immensely benefited by GM. Nevertheless, India says no. There are projections that Bangladesh would overtake India in terms of per capita income by 2030, growing rich by adopting GM.

Belt and Road Initiative

And now, the Belt and Road Initiative. As many as 122 countries have signed co-operation documents with China. Initially, only some resource-rich, low GDP countries signed up with China; now even Europe is joining in. India sits out.

India’s two main objections are: part of the BRI runs through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and many projects are opaquely financed. The first, obviously, is a valid point. But by staying out of the BRI, India is not likely to make the mildest difference to China’s activities in PoK, which, by the way, are not confined to just the BRI projects.

For long, China has been plundering PoK by, for instance, carting away copper from Gilgit-Baltistan, and India has been a silent spectator. Now, to keep out of BRI because a Chinese road passes through PoK is disingenuous. On the other hand, being ‘in’ could give India some leverage over China.

Again, what does India lose by allowing China to carry out its proposal to build a high-speed rail between Kolkata and Kumning, which would run through one of the least developed parts of India?

As for the opacity argument, true, as many as 29 countries — including Pakistan and Malaysia — have had problems with BRI projects. These are the countries that were lured into acquiescence. But who prevents India from making sure that the BRI projects in India are transparent? You can always negotiate for better terms — as Malaysia did recently, when it cancelled a railroad project and readmitted it after China agreed to slash costs.

China is a huge trading partner for India, with trade volumes reaching $90 billion in 2017-18. The BRI has seen overwhelming international response; India would only be worse off not joining the game. True, China is not exactly a friend. But India should not forget the basic principle of engagement: keep friends close, enemies closer.

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Published on May 24, 2019
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