Even as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Left came down heavily on the government for seeking to water down a key provision in the Nuclear Liability Bill that could hold foreign suppliers liable for damages in the event of an accident caused by their gross negligence, no minister or official was willing to offer an explanation for the change or even to confirm or deny that a decision to amend the draft had already been taken.
Pleading ignorance, highly placed South Block sources insisted “it is the government’s position that we want supplier liability to be there”. But they added that it was the Department of Atomic Energy and not the Ministry of External Affairs which was handling the file.
By evening, the DAE issued a curious press release which hinted that the bill’s provisions were still under consideration but did not deny reports that a change in the right of recourse section had already been decided. “It has been suggested in these reports that the government has conveyed to the committee its decisions to delete/modify certain provision of the draft legislation. The bill is now under consideration of the standing committee which is examining all aspects of the bill,” it said, adding: “The government’s role is limited and will continue to be restricted to providing inputs in response to queries put to it by the committee.”
Reacting to the report in The Hindu about the decision to delete Section 17(b) of the bill, Bharatiya Janata Party MP and spokesperson Prakash Javadekar on Thursday alleged that this was “almost direct evidence” that the Government was acting under pressure from the United States.
Slamming the government for softening the provisions of the nuclear liability bill instead of making them harsher and more rigorous, Mr. Javadekar said: “What the officials themselves were [earlier] pointing out as a safety clause in the bill which would bring in some measure of responsibility on the suppliers is now to be deleted altogether.”
Communist Party of India (CPI) MP D. Raja said the move showed the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had learned nothing from the Bhopal fiasco. He accused the government of “shamelessly succumbing” to U.S. pressure and changing its policies “to please U.S. multinational companies”.
Since the Bill has already been tabled in Parliament, the deletion of Section 17(b) will have to be introduced as an amendment and voted on separately prior to the passage of the law. Any other amendments proposed by the government will also have to be introduced in this way. The Standing Committee is likely to make suggested amendments of its own which the government may then accept and incorporate or reject.
U.S. nuclear suppliers had conveyed to India their unhappiness with sections 17(b) and 46 of the draft bill. The latter provision, they fear, will expose them to criminal and tort proceedings in the event of an accident.