In their attack on the White House decision to ease restrictions on the transfer of civilian nuclear technology to India ["A Bad Deal With India," op-ed, Aug. 3], Lawrence J. Korb and Peter Ogden emphasize two arguments: that the United States "secured so little in return" from India and that the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which India did not sign, has been irreparably damaged. Both of these arguments are fallacious. Moreover, Korb and Ogden ignore the compelling realities of geology and arithmetic that lie behind the administration's controversial departure.

The geological reality is that India has 31 percent of the world's known deposits of a rare radioactive mineral, thorium, in addition to its substantial reserves of uranium. This has emboldened New Delhi to embark on an exponential expansion of its nuclear power generating capacity, utilizing imported uranium-fueled reactors at first but shifting progressively to thorium-based fast-breeder reactors now under construction or on the drawing board. Fast-breeders, which Japan is also building, are the key to energy independence, since they continuously "breed" never-ending new supplies of plutonium alongside their production of electricity.

What this means is that India will dramatically multiply its inventory of fissile material in the years ahead. The administration has wisely recognized that it is imperative for the United States to bind India tightly to the global nonproliferation regime in order to make sure that this fissile material is not transferred to others. Even though it is not an NPT signatory, India has in practice observed Article One of the treaty, which bars such transfers, and the Indo-U.S. agreement concluded on July 18 formalizes and reinforces the Indian commitment to abide by nonproliferation norms.

Contrary to what Korb and Ogden wrote, the president did get important concessions in return for his pledge to seek agreement from Congress "to adjust U.S. laws and policies, and . . . to adjust international regimes to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation and trade with India." New Delhi agreed to continue its moratorium on nuclear testing, pledged that it would not transfer "enrichment and reprocessing technology to states that do not have them" and initiated measures to make its export control policies conform to the guidelines of the U.S.-led Nuclear Suppliers Group.

India already has an impeccable record of safeguarding its nuclear secrets, in marked contrast to neighboring Pakistan. But the July 18 accord was linked to the enactment of strengthened export control legislation. Equally important, India has agreed to place all of its existing and future civilian nuclear reactors under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

Elementary arithmetic underlines the wisdom of the administration's initiative. India has a population of 1 billion that is expected to reach 1.2 billion within seven years. With an economic growth rate of 7 percent, it is rapidly emerging as a major power with conventional military clout, in addition to its nuclear weapons. At the same time, rapid population growth drives burgeoning energy demands that threaten its economic and political stability. With or without U.S. cooperation, New Delhi must escalate its nuclear power capacity, as well as increase its oil imports. France, Germany and Russia can provide reactors if the United States does not, but as members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, they have been barred from doing so by the United States until now.

For India, U.S. readiness to help meet its number one national challenge is the litmus test of the sincerity of U.S. rhetoric about a new "strategic partnership" designed to strengthen India as a counterweight to China. The alternative to such a partnership could be the emergence over time of a Gaullist India that would play an unpredictable, freewheeling role in Asia.

The NPT itself does not bar signatories from providing civilian nuclear technology to non-signatories such as India. But Congress went far beyond the NPT in 1978 legislation that did bar non-signatories from any civilian nuclear cooperation with the United States, including cooperation in nuclear safety. This legislation should now be amended, and, pending such action, the White House should encourage nuclear cooperation with India by members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Korb and Ogden argue that the July 18 accord undermines the "coercive power" of the NPT. But the NPT has never had coercive power. Countries have signed it, or refused to sign, for reasons specific to each case. Many signatories are small, weak countries that never had any intention of developing nuclear weapons and signed up mainly to please Washington.

Most signed because the treaty was presented as an equitable bargain: Under Article Six, the existing nuclear powers pledged to phase out their own nuclear weapons, and under Article Four, they guaranteed the right of all countries to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under international safeguards. What is indeed undermining the NPT, as the recent Review Conference showed, is the failure of the nuclear powers that signed it to honor Article Six and the selective way the United States has treated Article Four. For example, to get Japan to sign the NPT, the United States agreed to help Tokyo develop plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities. But in Iran and North Korea, the United States is seeking to block peaceful nuclear programs comparable to those in Japan.

North Korea is an impoverished small country with limited natural resources and might yet prove willing to give up its nuclear weapons effort in return for economic help and the security of the ruling regime. By contrast, Iran, like India, is a big, ambitious country, well endowed with natural resources and determined to achieve major-power status. Whether it becomes a nuclear weapons power will not be decided by whether India gets reactors from the United States to produce electricity but by whether Tehran remains on a collision course with the United States over political and military issues, and by whether the existing nuclear powers begin to wind down their own nuclear arsenals.

The writer, a former Post bureau chief in South Asia, is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and author of "India: The Most Dangerous Decades."