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17 May 2016 Editorial


17 MAY 2016

The fee for NSG membership

China’s announcement that it intends to oppose India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group unless it agrees to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) comes just a month ahead of the NSG’s annual plenary session. For the past year, India had made admission to the 48-member NSG a focus of its international outreach, though membership has been a goal since the India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement was signed in 2008. Several major countries including the U.S., Russia, Germany, the U.K. and Australia have openly backed the bid, despite the fact that India is not a signatory to the NPT, widely considered to be a key criterion for NSG membership. In 2015, India reached out to many other NSG members, including those such as Ireland and Sweden that are members of the pro-disarmament group, the New Agenda Coalition, and have traditionally been opposed to its admission. The visit to New Delhi of NSG Chairperson Rafael Grossi in October 2015, when he spoke of taking the request forward, was seen to be a positive sign in this effort. Thus the disappointment after the signal from Beijing last week. Clearly, China’s stand is a combination of its fraught relations with India as well as its desire that its “all-weather friend” Pakistan not be disadvantaged in the process. While this ignores Pakistan’s well-known proliferation record, it also points to failure on the part of Indian diplomats tasked with convincing China that admitting India to the NSG is the logical thing to do.

However, this is not the end of the road for India’s NSG ambitions. Indeed, it is a signal that more persuasive diplomacy is needed to bring around naysayers such as China from blocking New Delhi’s bid, much as was done to bring China on board to get India the NSG waiver in 2008. For this, the government must begin an internal debate to appraise its own position on the NSG membership, and to figure out how far it is willing to go to secure it. India will, first, have to reckon with the possibility that NSG members could object to an “India-specific” ruling, and that other non-NPT countries, including Pakistan and Israel, may also benefit from any flexibility that is shown in India’s case. Second, there is a possibility that India could receive a “second class” membership, and not be considered a “nuclear weapons state” by the NSG. The third, and most important, point is that membership of the NSG, a body set up specifically in response to India’s nuclear test in 1974, will eventually require India to curtail its nuclear weapons programme. U.S. President Barack Obama’s comments, made after the Nuclear Security Summit, that the nuclear arsenals of India and Pakistan are taking them in the “wrong direction”, underscore this. If India aims to be part of the elite NSG club, it must have a realistic idea of what the fee for full membership is, added to the diplomatic outreach required to win support from China. A full and transparent cost-benefit analysis is crucial.

Waiting to exhale

After topping the list of cities with the most polluted air, Delhi’s ranking has improved in the latest air quality assessment published by the World Health Organization. India’s car-dominated national capital is no longer in the top ten cities choked by particulate matter. The top spot is now taken by Zabol, a city in Iran crippled by a vast disappeared wetland, dust storms, deforestation and desertification. The WHO’s upgrading of Delhi may appear a positive, but it is cold comfort to India because the problem of small particulate matter (PM) measuring 10 and 2.5 micrometres is still deep-rooted, and its health impact has been under official scrutiny only in recent years. Also, while Delhi has come to the 11th place for fine particulate matter pollution, many other cities in north India with a history of poor air quality are still high on the WHO list. This is unsurprising, as scientific studies point to distinct causative factors and atmospheric conditions in this part of the country that lead to very poor air quality. It is becoming clearer, for instance, that there is a higher risk of premature death from respiratory and cardiac conditions in several districts of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar, where living conditions are already difficult, and there is a large population suffering long-term exposure to PM and PM from a variety of sources, including household cooking. It is strongly quantified through research that air pollution increases the risk of death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart problems, lung cancer and other chronic ailments. This should prompt the Centre, which frames environmental law, to act speedily.

It has been known for long that the States along the Indo-Gangetic basin register higher levels of particulate matter pollution due to specific factors. Haryana, Punjab, Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh contribute a large part of the air pollution suffered by populations in the east too. A policy of mitigation should therefore aim to reduce the burning of solid cooking fuels and agricultural biomass, which takes place in the post-monsoon and winter seasons. This requires a coordinated approach involving the Centre and the States, and enlightened welfare policies relating to improved cooking stoves, solar stoves and cooking gas, low-cost heating facilities and affordable shelter. These measures would contribute to a reduction in the general burden of disease, and reduce the number of premature deaths linked to pollution. In fact, one government-funded study by IIT Delhi suggests that if India could meet its target for PM levels of 40 micrograms per cubic metre — which is not at all ambitious since the national average is about 37.3 — over 44,000 premature deaths could be prevented annually. It is important to curb the use of automotive fossil fuels, and promote public transport and non-motorised alternatives such as cycling and electric vehicles. Urbanisation also needs to become green, with eco-sensitive administrations providing paved surfaces, wetlands, parks and trees.

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