A Public Consultation on the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill 2010 on Wednesday held it unconstitutional and violative of the right to life and demanded that it be scrapped.

The Bill is currently with the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, which in an advertisement on June 24 had called for wider consultations to include public opinion on the Bill.

Organised by the University of Mumbai's Law Department, Greenpeace India and Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), the consultation is an attempt to put forward a strong people's mandate against the Bill by the time it comes up for discussion before the Standing Committee between July 13 to 17.

Priya Pillai, policy analyst with Greenpeace India, said that despite demands for a wider consultation, the government gave 15 days' time and notices were published only in the English media. On Tuesday, a public hearing was held in Hyderabad attended by over 70 people. People had very little time to express their opinions on the Bill, which according to the HRLN “represents a travesty of Indian common law and does nothing to protect Indian citizens in the case of a nuclear disaster.”

Prof. Suresh Mane, head of the Department of Law, University of Mumbai, set the ball rolling by asking if this Bill was really necessary. He said it was aimed at pleasing the private players in nuclear energy who wanted a cap on civil liability. Countries such as Canada have no cap in case of a nuclear accident on liability, he pointed out.

Displaced people from the Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS) near Mumbai spoke vehemently against the Bill and said promises of their rehabilitation were completely ignored.

Lochan Choudhary and others from the seven villages near the atomic power plant said nearly 50,000 people were displaced and the government had barely spent Rs. 86 crore on their rehabilitation.

Mr. Choudhary said that they lived about four km from the plant and were in constant dread of an accident. Sheetal Keni said the fish catch in the nearby fishing village at Tarapur had declined over the last five years or so. Many of the youth who were promised jobs used to work on contract at the atomic plant till a while ago, he said.

Serious issues

Mr. Choudhary raised serious issues about the safety of nuclear power plants in his submission. According to information provided by him and some former contract workers, there was danger of spent fuel being spilt out due to technical snags. Some emergency measures had to be taken to make sure there was no major disaster. His statement came on a day when a section of the media reported a serious leak being averted at TAPS unit four — this has been denied by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited. Ironically, the Parliamentary Standing Committee deliberating the Bill had visited the TAPS on July 6 to review safety preparedness.

Trade unionist Vivek Monteiro said there was a close relationship between liability and safety, and laws in countries such as the U.S. were recognising the need to increase the liability of operators to prevent the population from the risks of a nuclear accident. Under section 5(1) of the Bill the operators are not liable for damage if the nuclear plant is affected by a natural disaster or armed conflict or a terror strike. This, Mr. Monteiro said, was the opposite of what was happening in other countries. Having zero liability has a consequence of reducing the requirement of safety, he said and it endangered people's lives. This was an absolute violation of the Constitution. The Bill does not pass the test on the grounds of violating the right to life.

Compensation

Others such as Shukla Sen of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace said in a submission to the Parliamentary Standing Committee that there must not be an overall cap on the quantum of compensation to potential victims.

The overall cap of 300 million Special Drawing Rights which works to about $460 million is even lower than the compensation amount of $470 million ratified by the Supreme Court to the Bhopal gas victims in 1989.

According to them, the State will have to pay if the liability exceeds that amount. The outcomes of the two consultations along with the roundtable earlier conducted in Delhi will be presented to the Standing Committee.