All clear

The passage of the controversial Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill by the Lok Sabha on Wednesday after months of acrimonious public debate, talks with parties and a parliamentary discussion marks the near conclusion of the legislative process to support the civil nuclear deals India has entered into with the US and other countries. The law has to be in place to operationalise the agreements but the way the government went about the task had left much to be desired.However, the compromise between the government and the opposition, barring the Left which is against the nuclear deal as such, on the contentious issues represents a broad  consensus, befitting an important legislation. The opposition, mainly the BJP, had wanted removal of the word “and” between Clauses 17(a) and 17(b) and the expression “intent to cause nuclear damage” so that there will be liability on the part of suppliers of nuclear equipment and other materials in case of an accident. The government finally agreed.

The legislation that has now been passed is a much improved version of the original one conceived by the government. It is also better than some similar laws elsewhere in the world, as for example, the South Korean law which, though very stringent, agrees that the operator has the right to recourse only when there is wilful negligence on the part of the supplier. The additional safeguards built into the Indian law are a result of the active debate within the country. It could have been still better but for the government’s hurry and over-eagerness to hustle it through parliament. The government should have been more straightforward and transparent about the bill, and the opposition should have been involved from the beginning. At one stage the government  even went back on what was agreed, and surreptitiously introduced dubious elements into the bill. Though in the end the bill has been passed, the government has not covered itself with glory.
The legislation will ultimately open the doors to international nuclear business in India and will give a special nuclear status to the country. Suppliers of nuclear reactors are waiting for the multi-billion dollar business to be thrown open. India too at this stage needs nuclear power to meet its energy needs. But it should not lead to any slowdown in the plans to develop alternative and renewable sources like solar energy which are safer and better in many ways. 

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