August 31, 2010


[The nuclear issue, putatively about India’s future, has set off weeks of bitter political debate in New Delhi and tapped into Indian nationalism and public suspicion of foreign corporate interests, while dredging up a very different chapter in the countries’ relations: the 1984 Union Carbide industrial disaster at Bhopal, which killed thousands. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, accused of toadying to the United States, appeared before the lower house of Parliament last week to deny that his allegiance was anywhere but with India.]
Police officers took banners from people protesting
nuclear legislation in New Delhi last week.
The legislation still requires the president’s signature.
NEW DELHI — India’s Parliament approved a final, critical piece of a long-delayed landmark civil nuclear agreement on Monday, a pact regarded as a cornerstone of a Bush-era effort to transform the relationship between the United States and the world’s largest democracy.
But even as supporters praised a historic victory, the end result is probably not what the United States had hoped for, nor does it seem likely to signal a new era in relations between the United States and India.
Indeed, some analysts say the compromises needed to move Monday’s legislation through India’s contentious Parliament could undermine the practical impact of a political, diplomatic and economic accord that took years to negotiate. The legislation still requires the signature of the president, a ceremonial gesture that is virtually guaranteed.
With President Obama scheduled to make his first visit to India in early November, both governments are trying to strengthen a relationship sometimes described as, potentially, a natural and strategic alliance of democracies. But drawing closer has proved complicated as differences remain on issues like trade and climate change, as well as how to effectively deal with Pakistan.
The nuclear issue, putatively about India’s future, has set off weeks of bitter political debate in New Delhi and tapped into Indian nationalism and public suspicion of foreign corporate interests, while dredging up a very different chapter in the countries’ relations: the 1984 Union Carbide industrial disaster at Bhopal, which killed thousands. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, accused of toadying to the United States, appeared before the lower house of Parliament last week to deny that his allegiance was anywhere but with India.
“We kind of assume that we will be the dominant partner in any partnership,” said Teresita C. Schaffer, a former envoy to Sri Lanka who also served as an American diplomat in India. “India does not make that assumption.”
Mr. Singh, who announced the nuclear deal in a 2005 joint statement with former President George W. Bush, has an expansive vision of the role of nuclear energy, to which the deal is limited, as a power source for India’s future. For decades after its 1974 nuclear weapon test, India had refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and was subjected to a three-decade American moratorium on nuclear trade.
But the deal with the United States opened a controversial back door for India to join the nuclear club while also opening an Indian market estimated at $150 billion to foreign energy companies, once blocked by the moratorium.
Now the question is whether any foreign or even Indian energy company will be willing to enter the market to provide the expertise India needs to expand, because of the liability guidelines codified in the legislation in case of a nuclear accident.
Existing international conventions place liability solely with the operator of a nuclear reactor while immunizing suppliers. But the Indian law bucks international norms and makes suppliers potentially liable, too.
“This makes the fruits of the Indo-U.S. deal go to waste,” said G. Balachandran, a security analyst in New Delhi with a specialty in nuclear issues. He added: “It may well be the end of civil nuclear growth in India.”
India currently has 19 nuclear reactors, and the government wants to attract foreign and domestic suppliers to build more. International conventions largely abide by a principle in which liability is “channeled” strictly to the operator of a reactor rather than the long list of suppliers.
During the debate before Monday’s vote in the upper house of India’s Parliament, the government’s point man, Prithviraj Chavan, said the law would make India the only country in the world that placed some liability on suppliers. “The suppliers are not happy,” Mr. Chavan said.
The government originally proposed legislation more palatable to suppliers, but opposition parties had demanded tougher provisions, particularly after the ghost of the Bhopal disaster inflamed the debate.
In Bhopal, thousands of people were killed after a leak in December 1984 at the Union Carbide pesticide factory unleashed a poisonous cloud over the city. India sought $3.3 billion in damages from Union Carbide, since purchased by the Dow Chemical Company, but would later settle for $470 million. Much of the money has not been distributed, and many victims have gotten only nominal payments.
In June, India’s court system announced light criminal sentences for eight former executives of Union Carbide’s Indian subsidiary, one of whom had since died. Meanwhile, Warren M. Anderson, the former chairman of Union Carbide, has never been prosecuted, and he still lives in the United States, which has declined to extradite him.
After the issue resurfaced, the public was outraged, and the Bhopal tragedy again dominated the Indian media. Then on Aug. 19, an Indian news channel reported that a senior American official had cautioned a top Indian official in an e-mail that the “noise” over the Dow Chemical Company could hurt investment in India. The official, Mike Froman, a deputy national security adviser, issued a statement denying that he was making any sort of threat, but the episode further inflamed the nuclear debate.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition, insisted on language that left open the possibility that suppliers could be sued in the case of an accident.
On Monday, Arun Jaitley, the B.J.P. leader in the upper house, scoffed at the notion that foreign energy companies would stay away. He said India’s appetite for new nuclear reactors would create a “buyer’s market” and the law would provide leverage for the government. He said the law abided by the principle of channeling by holding only the operator liable for claims from accident victims. The difference, he said, is that the law allows an operator to sue a supplier under certain circumstances.
Had the law not been changed, he said, it would have been “a suppliers’ immunity law.”
Indian business groups and even the government’s own Nuclear Power Corporation of India, which operates the existing reactors, have warned that such liability language was problematic and could dissuade private suppliers.
India already has a separate bilateral agreement with Russia, and liability is less central an issue since Russian companies are state-owned. Yet Russia also has expressed concern. Private companies in other countries, including France, which also has a bilateral agreement with India, could be more exposed.
“It really increases the exposure of Indian and international suppliers,” said Ashley J. Tellis, a former American diplomat involved in negotiating the framework of the United States-India deal. “The net effect is that it is going to restrict the prime minister’s options and it could even be fatal to his vision of expanding the nuclear power sector in India.”
All faiths are welcome to eat a free lunch daily at the Golden Temple,
the holiest shrine for Sikhs, in Amritsar, India. More Photos »
AMRITSAR, India — The groaning, clattering machines never stop, transforming 12 tons of whole wheat flour every day into nearly a quarter-million discs of flatbread called roti. These purpose-built contraptions, each 20 feet long, extrude the dough, roll it flat, then send it down a gas-fired conveyor belt, spitting out a never-ending stream of hot, floppy, perfectly round bread.
Soupy lentils, three and a third tons of them, bubble away in vast cauldrons, stirred by bearded, barefoot men wielding wooden spoons the size of canoe paddles. The pungent, savory bite wafting through the air comes from 1,700 pounds of onions and 132 pounds of garlic, sprinkled with 330 pounds of fiery red chilies.
It is lunchtime at what may be the world’s largest free eatery, the langar, or community kitchen at this city’s glimmering Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Everything is ready for the big rush. Thousands of volunteers have scrubbed the floors, chopped onions, shelled peas and peeled garlic. At least 40,000 metal plates, bowls and spoons have been washed, stacked and are ready to go.
Anyone can eat for free here, and many, many people do. On a weekday, about 80,000 come. On weekends, almost twice as many people visit. Each visitor gets a wholesomevegetarian meal, served by volunteers who embody India’s religious and ethnic mosaic.
“This is our tradition,” said Harpinder Singh, the 45-year-old manager of this huge operation. “Anyone who wants can come and eat.”
India is not only the world’s largest democracy, it also is one of the most spiritually diverse nations. It was born in a horrific spasm of religious bloodshed when British India was torn in two to create a Muslim homeland in Pakistan. Yet from the moment of its independence, India has been a resolutely secular nation and has managed to accommodate an extraordinary range of views on such fundamental questions as the nature of humanity, the existence of God and the quality of the soul.
Indeed, few places in India demonstrate so clearly the country’s genius for diversity and tolerance, the twin reasons that India — despite its fractures and fissures — has remained one nation.
Sikhism, which emerged in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century, strongly rejects the notion of caste, which lies at the core of Hinduism.
The Golden Temple, a giant complex of marble and glittering gold that sits at the heart of this sprawling, hectic city near the border with Pakistan, seeks to embody this principle. Nowhere is it more evident than in the community kitchen, where everyone, no matter his religion, wealth or social status, is considered equal.
Guru Amar Das created the community kitchen during his time as the third Sikh guru in the 16th century. Its purpose, he said, was to place all of humanity on the same plane. At the temple’s museum, one painting shows the wife of one of the gurus serving common people, “working day and night in the kitchen like an ordinary worker,” the caption says.
Volunteerism and community support are other central tenets of Sikhism expressed in the langar. When the Mughal emperor Akbar tried to give Guru Amar Das a platter of gold coins to support the kitchen, he refused to accept them, saying the kitchen “is always run with the blessings of the Almighty.”
Ashok Kumar, a Hindu with a scraggly beard, has been coming to the kitchen for the past five years — all day, almost every day — to work as a volunteer. “It is my service,” he explained, after reluctantly taking a very brief break from his syncopated tray sorting.
A white rag covered his head, and his hands were bound like a boxer’s. His job is to man the heavy bucket that receives the dirty plates and bowls. He is the last man on a highly organized line that begins with collecting the spoons, dumping out any leftover food, then loading giant tubs of dirty dishes bound for the washing troughs.
Plates and bowls fly at him, but he never misses a beat, using a metal plate in each hand to deflect the traffic into the tub. Plates go around the rim, while bowls get stacked in the middle.
Mr. Kumar used to be a bookbinder.
“I feel happy here,” he said when asked why he had given up his old life.
Indians of all faiths come here to find a measure of peace largely unavailable in the cacophony of the nation’s 1.2 billion people. Like the thousands of pairs of shoes left at the temple gates, the chaos and filth of urban life are left behind at the marble entrances.
The temple is a world of cleanliness and order — where the wail of the harmonium and the shuffling of bare feet are the only sounds, and every square inch is scrubbed many times a day.
It has not always been a peaceful place. A Sikh insurgency, which sought a separate homeland for Sikhs in Punjab, tore at India’s heart in the 1970s and ’80s. In 1984, Indira Gandhi, then the prime minister, ordered a bloody raid on the temple. Hundreds of militants were hiding there, and many were killed. The temple was also damaged. Sikh bodyguards later assassinated Mrs. Gandhi to avenge the attack on the temple.
Despite this history, Sikhs remain resolutely a part of India’s mainstream, holding leading positions in the arts, government and business. India’s current prime minister,Manmohan Singh, is a Sikh.
Pankaj Ahuja, who owns a medical supply shop in Rajasthan, was visiting the temple for the third time, this time bringing his wife and son, who had never been before. They took the Golden Temple Express train, and were sleeping in the pilgrims’ dormitories, which are also free. The family is Hindu, but the temple has a special significance for them nonetheless.
“You have lots of religious places in this country,” said Mr. Ahuja’s wife, Nikita. “But the kind of peace and cleanliness you find here you won’t find anywhere else.”
Back home, cleaning floors would be considered degrading for someone of her status — people of low caste usually do such work. But here, Mrs. Ahuja happily scrubs floors.
“In normal life, I would ask, ‘Why should I do this?’ It is shameful to clean floors,” she said. “But here, it is different.”
Indeed, she never gives a moment’s thought to who prepared the food in the kitchen, even though in India’s highly stratified caste traditions such matters are vital.
“It is more than food,” she said of the meals that she had eaten at the community kitchen. “Once you eat it, you forget who is cooking, who is serving it, who is sitting next to you.”
Anil Kumar, a 32-year-old Hindu, was up to his elbows in soapy water at one of the washing troughs.
“At home, I would never do this,” he said with a laugh. “It is my wife’s work.”
But he said he tried to come for at least an hour every day to wash dishes. “It is not a question of religion,” he added. “It is a question of faith. Here I feel a feeling of peace.”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 29, 2010
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated in which century Guru Amar Das was the third Sikh guru. It was in the 16th century, not the 15th.