Kuppan commits the crime but Suppan gets the punishment! This is exactly how the infamous Civil Nuclear Liability Bill of the UPA government works. According to this legislation, if there was an accident in a nuclear power facility, the onus for paying the damages will be on the operator of the facility and not on the supplier of the equipment or the builder of the facility.
Consider one of the famous liability litigation. Some 18 years ago, on February 27, 1992 (to be exact), a 79-year-old American woman called Stella Liebeck from Albuquerque, New Mexico ordered a cup of coffee from a local McDonald’s restaurant. She had placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the lid to add cream and sugar and in the process spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns and had to be hospitalized for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. When McDonald’s turned down Liebeck’s claim of her medical costs, she sued the company for “gross negligence.” The trial took place in August 1994 and the jury concluded that McDonald's was 80% responsible for the incident and awarded Liebeck US$200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The judge reduced these amounts a bit and both parties settled out of court for an undisclosed amount less than $600,000. If this case was conducted along the lines of the Indian Civil Nuclear Liability Bill, the local franchisee or the server who served the hot coffee would pay the damages to Liebeck and McDonald’s itself would go scotfree.
A nuclear accident is much more serious and deadly than spilling a cup of coffee. Not just one individual but an entire locality could be wiped out in a nuclear catastrophe. Nevertheless, the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill provides for a cap of Rs 2,400 crores by way of damages in case of a nuclear accident and the Indian government will facilitate compensation through the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL), the operator of the nuclear facilities in the country.
The Indian government’s passing the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill is an important precondition that allows US companies such as General Electric and Westinghouse to seek insurance cover at home. Without our liability law, US firms will not get insurance cover for their projects in India. Other foreign companies such as Areva (France) and Rosatom Corp (Russia) have also been lobbying in New Delhi for this kind of liability bill. Indian companies like Reliance, Tata Power and GMR are also keen on this operator-based liability arrangement.
The Indian government fixes the civil liability at approximately Rs 2,400 crores because the manufacturers insist that liability cannot be impractically high. But the anti-nuclear activists, citing the tragic Bhopal experiences, point out the lack of criminal liability in the Bill and argue that the liability clause is not stringent enough.
While the foreign and Indian companies will make profits from their nuclear commerce, the NPCIL, a state-run and public-funded agency will become the guarantor of compensation in case of liabilities. In other words, the affected parties (the Indian public in this case) will pay compensation to themselves with their own monies and the profiteering capitalists will go scotfree with their interests intact. What an ingenious plan!?
This legislation on liability will facilitate foreign nuclear companies’ investment in India, and will also necessitate suitable amendment to the Atomic Energy Act 1962 that will allow private entry into nuclear business. This civil nuclear liability regime would pave the way for India joining the international convention, and the amended Atomic Energy Act would facilitate Indian companies’ entry into nuclear commerce.
The dangerous combination of secretive state, profiteering companies and careerist nuclear scientists will not be in the best interests of the Indian public. Like the Bhopal victims who are running from pillar to post even after 25 years of the worst industrial disaster, we will be out on the street with radiation illnesses and without any kind of help from the authorities.
The UPA government that gave a nod to the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill back in November 2009 is planning to push the Bill during the ongoing Winter Session of the Parliament. The Prime Minister has even sought the backing of the opposition BJP as his ruling combine does not have the sufficient votes in the Rajya Sabha.
The National Alliance of Anti-nuclear Movements (NAAM) as well as its constituent organizations opposes the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill that seeks to protect the interests of the rich and powerful while leaving the Indian citizens high and dry on the nuclear highway. NAAM exhorts the people of India to ask their Members of Parliament to vote against this anti-people legislation.