Weeks ahead of the nuclear security summit in Seoul, India has been dealt a blow on its famed nuclear reputation. In the first-ever index of security of nuclear materials, India almost brings out the rear - just above Iran, Pakistan and North Korea.
The index, compiled by a US nuclear think-tank Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), "is the first Nuclear Materials Security Index, a rating and ranking of the security framework in 32 nations that possess one kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials."
In its summary, the study says this index "is not a facility-by-facility review of "guns, guards, and gates". Instead, the authors of the study say they assessed each state on "publicly available indicators of a state's nuclear materials security practices and conditions".
The index is an embarrassment when India is hosting the sherpas for the nuclear security summit here on Monday. India takes a leading position on nuclear security issues, and is scheduled to establish a centre of excellence for nuclear security in Haryana.
While many in the Indian nuclear sector may scoff at the index, it is being used as a pressure point - the think-tank is even asking Australia to reconsider its decision to sell uranium to India because of New Delhi's score. Australia and the UK have the highest scores in the index.
Countries were scored on the following indicators: quantities and sites, which included material production and transportation; security measures particularly on-site protection; accession to global norms, including taking on voluntary commitments; domestic commitments and capacity.
The list may prove to be a trifle controversial because it judges countries on "societal factors", which include political instability and corruption.
India scored well in keeping with its international commitments, on-site physical protection, response capabilities and accounting procedures. It seems to score poorly on political stability and because of the lack of domestic legislation.
Professor R Rajaraman, emeritus professor of theoretical physics, JNU, acknowledged that for the researchers of EIU, "Their judgments do come into play at this stage.
In their evaluation, the main negative factors against India seem to have been the absence of an institutionally independent regulatory agency, our continued production of weapon material and overall corruption."
The problem Indians will have with this index is the fact that there is clearly a lot of value judgment that has gone into putting a score on a country. Anil Kakodkar, former chairman of DAE, said, "Nuclear security, by definition, is confidential. How do they expect to assess us on what they don't obviously know?"
Rajaraman was one of the four Asians in an international experts' panel, who prepared the various factors and their relative weights for the NTI index. He said, "I believe the resulting package of indicators is objective and very transparent. Apart from "rating" countries, it also provides tangible criteria for any country, even if it disagrees with its own score, to constructively examine and enhance the security of its material."
India, Pakistan and Israel are still publicly declared manufacturers of fissile material, which was a negative for the study. India scored zero on "security of materials during transportation" a score the Indian government is unlikely to agree with.
Judging India's nuclear security by corruption will raise eyebrows as well. Though corruption in India cannot be denied, the fact that only one department is in charge is seen to be an insulating factor.
Explaining the methodology, the authors of the study say, "It is not obvious that corruption, which is typically driven by economic gain, is an indicator of the potential risk of nuclear materials theft, although past studies by the EIU and other organizations have shown a high correlation between corruption and most other societal and public policy shortcomings, including poverty and environmental degradation. For that reason, we have included corruption as an indicator."