Although the first prime minister of India Jawahar Lal Nehru was a self-proclaimed socialist-inspired during the days of the country’s freedom struggle by the transformation of the Soviet Union under a Marxist government, this did not ensure a close and cordial relationship with the USSR after independence.
Stalin continued to view Nehru as a leader under the influence of the British and, the policy of non-alignment pursued by India also caused apprehensions in his mind. It was only after his death that there was a thaw in bilateral relations and a period of multi-dimensional economic and technical cooperation began when Khrushchev became the supreme leader.
The USSR stepped in when the Western countries refused or were reluctant to help India with its economic development. The first steel plants (Bhilai), chemical fertiliser factories (Sindri), Heavy Engineering establishment (Haridwar and Bhopal) and units to produce life-saving drugs and vaccines (IDPL in Rishikesh) were set up with Russian assistance.
Cooperation covered the strategic needs of India. Not only the USSR became the largest supplier of military hardware to India it happily agreed to transfer technology for the gradual indigenisation of these products. HAL (Bangalore) bears testimony to this mutually beneficial partnership in progress.
The Indian Space Programme has literally taken off with unstinted Russian assistance. It is in this larger perspective that Indo-USSR nuclear collaboration must be analysed.
The beginnings were small. The first nuclear reactor was set up in India with Canadian assistance and Indian nuclear scientists trained in universities in the UK and the US were inclined to look at the western countries for collaboration in high tech. The Russian accomplishment in the field of nuclear science and rocketry matched the prowess of the USA and Indians were constrained to relook at prospects of adding this topic to their agenda of bilateral cooperation with the USSR. The Heavy Water Plant at Kota was set up with Russian assistance and has worked satisfactorily.
More recently, the Kudankulam nuclear power plant (KKNPP) in Tamil Nadu has been described as a ‘flagship joint project’ that envisions building as many as 12 nuclear plants over the next 20 years. The indigenous content in the KKNPP unit 1 and 2 was minimal, the Rosatom has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to progressively enhance domestic value addition in the remaining units.
India expects that that nuclear cooperation with Moscow would significantly enhance India’s industrial manufacturing capacity in the realm of sophisticated technology. It mentions “Localization of Manufacturing in India for the Russian-Designed Nuclear Reactor Units” which provided for indigenous manufacturing of equipment and fuel assemblies for Russian-engineered nuclear plants in India. While critical components like reactor pressure vessels, coolant pumps, steam generators, etc., will be supplied by Russian companies, the share of Indian industry in manufacturing equipment in Turbine Island and the Balance of Plant (BoP) is expected to increase to over 50 percent in addition to prospective local production of nuclear fuel rods for KKNPP and future units.
Kudankulam Nuclear Plant has been consistently targeted by environmental activists as posing a fragile already imperiled ecosystem and livelihood of marginal farmers. It has also been suggested that such protests have been engineered by NGOs spawned and funded Western Nations to obstruct Indo-Russian Nuclear cooperation. There have been other hiccups in the past. Chernobyl meltdown raised fear about the hazards of a nuclear accident. Also, the change in political regimes and the ideological climate in India and Russia has retarded the growth of nuclear ties.
The civil nuclear energy cooperation, traditionally important in Indo-Russian relations, became even more significant in the context of the non-proliferation sanctions imposed by the western countries in the wake of Pokharan II. Russia was constrained to supply nuclear fuel to India during this period as it is a founder of the NSG group but circumstances have changed since and India can look forward to unhindered cooperation in this field in the future.
It may be noted in passing that Russia is also collaborating with India in the manufacture of a nuclear-powered submarine.
The Indo-Russian partnership in nuclear energy is constantly expanding in scope. Both sides are equally enthusiastic about extending its benefits to third parties. An interesting illustration is Bangladesh where the Rooppur Nuclear Power Project is being set up with Russian technology and Indian experts. The cooperation is wide-ranging from construction to installation of safety measures, training of personnel and handholding during the initial stages. The successful execution of this ambitious tripartite joint venture is likely to be followed with similar projects in other countries also.