With the Bhopal judgment exposing the Indian system's failure to fix liability for a major industrial disaster, a parliamentary panel on Tuesday formally began consideration of the controversial Civil Nuclear Liability Bill.
Members of the Standing Committee on Science and Technology questioned Atomic Energy Commission chairman Srikumar Banerjee on the Bill's provisions. Dr. Banerjee, according to several MPs, said the government was prepared to be flexible.
The committee, which is chaired by Congress MP T. Subbarami Reddy, will hold its next meeting on June 15 and 16. Among those who will testify are the Union Power and Law Secretaries, as well as independent experts. The DAE is also likely to revert with fresh language on a couple of provisions.
As it stands, the Bill deals only with civil liability in the event of a nuclear accident. Civil liability is channelled to the operator, whose individual, no-fault exposure is capped at Rs. 500 crore. Though the draft allows the authorities to raise that cap and also provides for top-up compensation from the government, critics say the sums would be inadequate in the event of a major nuclear disaster. Questions have also been raised why the Bill does not exclude private operators from this official burden sharing so that the taxpayer does not end up subsiding private corporations as and when the law is amended to allow them in to the nuclear power generation business.
Though the Bill makes no mention of criminal liability, official sources say the Opposition is reading too much into this absence. Indeed, as part of their hard sell a few months ago, government managers made much of the fact that the new law would not dilute the state's right to file criminal charges in case an accident is caused by negligence. Nor would it affect the victims' right to file tort claims in such an eventuality for damages over and above the operator's no-fault liability limit.
In the light of the public outcry over the Bhopal case, however, the government now acknowledges these arguments do not sound very convincing. “We are showing flexibility. I think it is very clear that with a rigid attitude, we cannot proceed,” a senior official told The Hindu.
Though the Standing Committee is likely to suggest changes, one question already being asked is whether the Bill, or perhaps a parallel piece of legislation, could take up the question of enhancing the criminal penalty for operators as well as their foreign and domestic suppliers beyond what Section 304 A of the Indian Penal Code allows in the event of an accident. A second question is whether the current Bill can include provisions creating legal and administrative machinery that nuclear accident victims could use to effectively press tort claims.