Govt, Oppn gear for next battle, over nuke bill

The brouhaha over the women’s reservation bill is not quite over, but a fresh one appears imminent with the government set to introduce a bill in the Lok Sabha that is key to implementation of the India-US civilian nuclear deal.

The main opposition BJP and the Left parties have decided to oppose the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill that was cleared by the Union cabinet before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trip to the United States last November. The Prime Minister is scheduled to visit the US again in April. The India-US nuclear deal, an issue on which he staked his government two years ago, is still not operational.

Minister of State (Independent charge) for Science and Technology, Prithviraj Chavan, is scheduled to introduce the bill on Monday. If passed by Parliament, it will pave the way for American firms to do business in nuclear energy with India.

It provides for fixing the total liability for a nuclear mishap at around Rs 2,200 crore, out of which Rs 500 crore will be paid by the public or private operator in India, and the remaining amount by the government.

However, no liability will be fixed on the foreign supplier companies even if there is a mishap because of a manufacturing defect. This provision has been strongly opposed by the Left, the BJP and environment groups.

Clause seven of the bill states:“Central government shall be liable for nuclear damage in respect of a nuclear accident when such liability exceeds the Rs 500 crore liability limit of the operator or where the accident occurs in a nuclear installation owned by it.”

Noted lawyer and former Attorney General of India, Soli Sorabjee, in an opinion to international environmental activist group Greenpeace, has described the bill as “discriminatory”.

The BJP conveyed its opposition to the Prime Minister as well as to National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon when the latter called on Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley earlier this month.

The party is opposed to the low liability level of private service providers in case of accidents.

The government is pushing for the bill since it feels that its passage would enable India to start civil nuclear commerce with American firms.

What next?

n The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill – which has been cleared by cabinet — may now be referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy due to Opposition demand.

n The government has the numbers to get the bill passed, but this may not happen as soon as it wants.

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