A Kerala government panel's ruling on the damages Coca-Cola must pay villagers affected by pollution from its Palakkad bottling plant is likely to rekindle the debate on the compensation limits set by the Nuclear Liability Bill.

If the soft drinks giant is asked to pay Rs. 216 crore for a case of local pollution, how can the government cap the compensation for a nuclear accident at just Rs. 500 crore?

“It's ridiculous,” says Chandra Bhushan, associate director of the Centre for Science and Environment, who deals with both industrial pollution and nuclear issues for the research and advocacy group. “A soft drink plant is not even a very highly polluting industry. If the Kerala government can peg that [damages] at Rs. 216 crore, then you can see how ridiculously low Rs. 500 crore is for a nuclear accident.”

Senior Supreme Court advocate Rajeev Dhawan agrees. “At present, we should be concerned with the actual damage, not with caps. The Coca Cola case is an excellent example of a ruling on actual damages.” However, in the case of nuclear liabilities, the Bill is dealing with “deemed damages and deemed compensation,” he pointed out. “Especially when we are dealing with nuclear accidents, the very concept of deemed damages is retrograde…Haven't we learnt anything from Bhopal?”

Bhopal lesson

Several activists also pointed to the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal as an important lesson in the compensation debate. “The problem today in Bhopal is that even with the $430-odd million given [as a one-time settlement] by Union Carbide, and the estimated $1 billion the government has spent, all that is for compensation of the victims. But no one has spent a penny on decontamination of the site,” says Mr. Chandra Bhushan. “In the case of a nuclear accident, the costs of decontamination would be massive.” The cost of decommissioning a nuclear plant is almost as large as the cost of construction, and a large portion of that comes from decontamination costs, he points out.

The Bill says, “Nuclear damage means…costs of measures of reinstatement of impaired environment caused by a nuclear incident.” This seems to indicate that decontamination and restoration costs would also come under the cap, which experts say is ridiculous.

“The cap offloads a lot of both the burden of compensation and the burden of restoration on to the government,” says Mr. Dhawan.

The Coca Cola ruling included various compensatory damages — for agricultural loss, pollution of water resources, cost of providing water, health damage, wage loss and opportunity cost — but does not actually deal with the cost of restoring the Plachimada environment harmed by the bottling plant. If such costs were included, especially in a case of nuclear accident, the amounts would be far higher than the existing cap.

Greenpeace argues that limiting liability is a signal of the government's limited commitment to the people. “That it took so long for liability in [the Coca Cola case in] Plachimada to be established, and the fact there is still no end in sight for the victim of Bhopal are a grim reminder that the government's commitment to people is rather limited,” said Karuna Raina, climate and energy campaigner for the Greenpeace. “When hard choices have to be made, the United Progressive Alliance government seems to always trade off the citizen of India to appease foreign companies.”

More In: News