With the government conceding a major point to the Opposition on supplier liability, the Lok Sabha on Wednesday passed the controversial Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010.
Intervening in the five hour-long debate on the Bill and seeking “unanimous support” for it, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said it marked the “completion of a journey to end the apartheid against India in the field of atomic power.” He vehemently rejected the charge of Opposition MPs that the law was being brought to promote American interests.
The United Progressive Alliance managed to get the support of the Opposition parties for the Bill after it dropped the contentious provision of “intent” as a precondition for holding suppliers liable for a nuclear accident caused by defective equipment. With the BJP and the Left proposing similar language, a government amendment rectifying Section 17(b) sailed through unanimously. In all, the House adopted 18 amendments moved by the government before passing the Bill by voice vote.
An amendment moved by CPI(M) leader Basudeb Acharia to fix the liability cap on suppliers in case of accidents at Rs.10,000 crore instead of the Rs.1,500 crore as mentioned in the Bill was defeated, with 252 members voting against it and 25 in favour.
Initiating the debate, BJP leader Jaswant Singh criticised the government's “sleight of hand” in drafting the law and its attempts to “hustle” it through Parliament. Asserting that India's ambitious plans in the nuclear sector meant it was a “buyer's market,” he asked the government to take the larger concerns of Indians on board and not those of foreign suppliers.
Replying to the debate, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Prithviraj Chavan countered the Opposition's charge that the government was in a hurry to push the Bill before U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to India. There was no deadline fixed as “we are already five years too late” and it could not be delayed any more, he said.
It was “unfair” to say the Bill had something to do with Mr. Obama's visit as the Presidents of Russia and France too came here earlier and India signed nuclear agreements with those countries. He said the criminal liability laws were always there to protect victims and that the amount of compensation they would be entitled to was “unlimited” since the government would accept whatever amount was decided by the Claims Commissioner.
Mr. Chavan made it clear that the country's three-phase nuclear research programme would not be compromised because of the Bill.
Gurudas Dasgupta (CPI) said nuclear power production was extremely costly and the government had not worked out the cost of importing 40 nuclear reactors. Among the other MPs who intervened, Manish Tiwari (Congress) said the first initiatives for ending India's nuclear isolation were taken by Jaswant Singh when he held talks with the U.S. in 1999. “When Manmohan Singh took over as Prime Minister, he only took that forward … If India wants progress, then we have to have nuclear energy.”
Sharad Yadav (JD-U) said the way the Bill had been brought in and from the efforts made by the government, people thought that it had been in a tearing hurry. “Only a handful of people will benefit from nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is not a good thing.”
Mr. Basudeb Acharia said the Bill was America-centric and this would make India dependent on imports from the U.S.
He charged that the government had kept Parliament in the dark about the cost of importing nuclear reactor and cost of power generation.