We'll address BJP, Left concerns: Minister
The shortlived agreement on civil nuclear liability between the government and the Bharatiya Janata Party gave way on Thursday to a fresh round of bargaining with the Opposition party telling government managers it was not ready to vote for the proposed bill if it diluted in any way the liability of suppliers for accidents caused by their negligence.
As a result, the Cabinet meeting, which was to consider the report of the Standing Committee on Science and Technology and approve the final version of the nuclear bill, had to be postponed to Friday morning. Late in the evening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met his advisers and colleagues to sort out the fresh tangle.
“We will address all the concerns raised by the BJP and the Left,” a Minister told reporters.
Earlier this week, BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley hammered out an agreement with Leader of the House Pranab Mukherjee in which several changes in the proposed law were made. These were duly reflected in the report of the Standing Committee, which was endorsed by all its members, BJP MPs included, except two legislators from the Left.
After The Hindu on Thursday disclosed the manner in which the report diluted the provision on suppliers' liability, BJP leaders protested their innocence and suggested the government had made some changes that were outside the understanding earlier reached.
Clause 17 of the bill deals with the nuclear operator's right of recourse against a supplier. In a note given by BJP leaders to Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Prithviraj Chavan, the party insists that clause 17(b) — which allows an operator to recover damages from his supplier in the event that an accident is caused by negligence or defective equipment — must not be made conditional on there being a prior contract with the supplier spelling this out. By inserting the word “and” between 17(a), which speaks of a contract, and 17(b), this was precisely what the government was doing, the BJP said.
In short, the “right to recourse” — i.e., the ability of the operator, who must compensate victims for any accident, to make his supplier liable — should not depend on a specific operator-supplier agreement but must be part of the Indian law that would place these conditions on all suppliers.
Mr. Jaitley told reporters that at the very least, a contract between the operator and the supplier specifically stating supplier liability was a “must” while Ms. Swaraj said that even if contracts relating to nuclear commerce between other governments have been lax and provided for little or no supplier liability, there was no reason why the Indian law should not be more stringent and specific.
Ms. Swaraj added the BJP could consider moving an amendment if the government were to move the bill for discussion and adoption without making the changes on supplier liability.
The basic point that BJP leaders made was that all the strengthened conditions spelt out in clause 17(b) that were added during discussions with the government would kick in only if these were specifically spelt out in a contract between the operator and the supplier (private foreign company or a foreign government) as the bill stands at present. “Since nuclear power plants are to be operated only by the government or government-owned companies it would be to our advantage to delete the word ‘and' from the end of clause 17(a),” Mr. Jaitley said.
The Business Advisory Committee of the Lok Sabha has allotted four hours' discussion time to the bill next week, making it clear the government plans to pass the legislation this parliamentary session.