Another sellout

The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Bill (2010), which is on the brink of passage through parliament, is a classic example of how politics and business are trumping the interests and well-being of the people of this country. This bill is deeply flawed. It caps the total liability of any nuclear disaster at a maximum of Rs 1,500 crore.

The amount is mere peanuts if one considers the high cost — human, financial and environmental — that will be incurred in the event of a nuclear disaster. Worse, the bill exempts foreign suppliers of nuclear equipment from any liability. They will not be held responsible even for accidents that result from a design flaw. It is the operator who is held liable. In India’s case it will be state-run entities.

Consequently, it will be the Indian tax payer who will have to foot the bill. By fixing the supplier liability at such a low level, the bill fails to provide sufficient incentive to the equipment supplier to prevent nuclear accidents. Why would he spend on safety equipment when he can get away with a rap on the knuckles if an accident happens? The bill focuses on compensation only in the event of a nuclear disaster. While the country is revisiting the horrendous lessons of Bhopal gas tragedy, this was hardly expected.

It was hoped that the parliamentary panel that examined a previous version of the bill would improve it in a way that safety and security of ordinary Indians would be enhanced. This has not happened. The present version is worse than its previous avatar and obviously the government is acting under the pressure of foreign suppliers of nuclear equipment. With the Congress and the BJP reported to have struck a deal — it is believed that the Congress will not pursue cases against Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in return for the BJP’s support on the bill in parliament — the bill is set to become law.

The government claims that the bill will enable victims of a nuclear disaster to get prompt compensation. But the meagre compensation envisaged will negate whatever gains might come through quick settlement. Even countries like South Korea and Hungary have tougher laws. This bill is grossly unjust and it will be another betrayal after the Bhopal sellout. It can still be defeated on the floor of the House if only our elected representatives put public interest above narrow political gains and business profits.

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