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Obama trip to help revive stalled US-India relationship

As India prepare for a three-day visit from US president Barack Obama, Samanth Subramanian reports on what talks are likely to focus on.
Indian artist Harwinder Singh Gill shows off his creation, an image of US president Barack Obama carved on a duck's egg shell with the national flags of India and the United States, on January 24, 2015. Mr Obama is due to arrive in India on January 25, 2015. Munish Sharma/Reuters
Indian artist Harwinder Singh Gill shows off his creation, an image of US president Barack Obama carved on a duck's egg shell with the national flags of India and the United States, on January 24, 2015. Mr Obama is due to arrive in India on January 25, 2015. Munish Sharma/Reuters

NEW DELHI // Climate change, trade and nuclear energy will be the focus of talks during US president Barack Obama’s visit to India, as the two countries try to revive a stalled relationship.

Mr Obama lands in India on Sunday for a three-day trip that includes an appearance as chief guest at the country’s Republic Day ceremony on Monday. He becomes the first US president to come to India twice during his tenure, having visited once before in 2010.

India and the United States are “natural partners”, Mr Obama told the current affairs magazine India Today on Thursday, but in matters of cooperation, “progress has not always come as fast as we would have liked”.

Mr Obama will jump into talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the day he arrives, soon after visiting Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial. Later, after meeting business leaders, he will attend a banquet at the official residence of President Pranab Mukherjee.

On Monday, amid tight security, Mr Obama will watch India’s annual Republic Day parade, consisting of military showcases and cultural floats rolling down the Rajpath boulevard in the heart of the capital.

The next day, Mr Obama is expected to address a town-hall-style meeting in an auditorium in south Delhi. The president and the first lady, Michelle Obama, were scheduled to then fly to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, but the White House announced on Saturday that this part of the trip had been cancelled so that Mr Obama could visit Riyadh to pay his respects following the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Friday.

Among Mr Obama’s goals will be to push India towards significantly cutting fossil-fuel emissions ahead of global climate-change talks in Paris later this year.

“Being global partners means working together to meet one of the world’s urgent challenges – climate change,” Mr Obama told India Today.

Despite being the world’s third-largest producer of carbon emissions, India has resisted making deep cuts. Mr Modi’s government has said several times that it is unwilling to compromise on economic growth by reducing the use of fossil fuels. In an interview last September, Prakash Javadekar, the environment minister, said India would not cut emissions for another 30 years.

“What cuts? That’s more for developed countries,” Mr Javadekar said. “India’s first task is eradication of poverty. Twenty per cent of our population doesn’t have access to electricity, and that’s our top priority. We will grow faster, and our emissions will rise.”

But Mr Modi has pushed for the development of energy alternatives, such as solar energy, and India will seek monetary and technological assistance from the US during Mr Obama’s trip to boost its renewable energy sector. India’s increased focus on renewables is unlikely to diminish its use of fossil fuels in the near future, however.

Last week, while chairing his first meeting of the prime minister’s council on climate change – a body set up by the previous prime minister, Manmohan Singh – Mr Modi barely spoke about emissions. Instead, he called for clean energy generation, energy efficiency and energy conservation.

“What India needs is finance ... That is where the importance of the US comes in,” Krishnan Pallassana, the India director of the Climate Group, told Reuters. “India will surely be looking for the means to technology transfer to boost renewable energy.”

As has happened repeatedly in the past few years, the US is expected to press India to open up its markets further, allowing foreign direct investment in key sectors such as retail.

“Currently, India prohibits foreign businesses from selling items directly to Indian consumers over the internet, which means that US businesses cannot sell products online ... without involving a middle man,” US senators Mark Warner and John Cornyn, co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus, said in a letter to Mr Obama on Friday.

The US president’s visit to India has been preceded by frantic negotiations between the two countries over a long-dormant nuclear energy deal. Over the past six weeks, Indian and American negotiators have met three times – most recently in London – to iron out differences between the two countries.

Signed seven years ago, the deal provided a framework for the US to help develop India’s civilian nuclear energy sector. In return, India would provide the US with assurances that its civilian and military nuclear facilities would be kept separate, and that its civilian facilities could be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But the issue of liability – specifically, how much American companies providing the nuclear technology would bear in the event of an accident – proved thorny, especially after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011.

The Nuclear Liability Act, passed by the Indian parliament in 2010, sets down liability clauses deemed too high by commercial American nuclear suppliers. Diluting these clauses will prove not only unpopular with parliamentarians but also be difficult to do.

“Amending the liability act requires the approval of both houses of parliament,” G Balachandran, a consulting fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, told The National. “This is why it has been stuck in an impasse.”

Prime minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has a majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, but is a minority in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house.

Despite this, the negotiators have been making progress in London, Syed Akbaruddin, spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, said last week.

“What is being discussed is how within the four walls of our legal framework ... we can provide assurance to our partners in the US and of any [liability] concerns that they may have, either through their vendors or lawyers,” Mr Akbaruddin said.


Updated: January 24, 2015 04:00 AM

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