Finally, Civil Nuclear Liability Bill passed in LS

In an end to weeks of uncertainty the Lok Sabha passed Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Bill, paving way for nuclear commerce to begin.

New Delhi: The civil nuclear liability bill got a near unanimous go-ahead from the Lok Sabha Wednesday after months of hectic negotiations followed by a compromise between the government and the opposition over the legislation, which is critical for India`s atomic industry.

The bill was passed in the Lok Sabha after the government agreed to consider amendments suggested by a parliamentary panel to the original proposed atomic law tripling the liability cap on an operator in case of an accident to Rs.1,500 crore from the earlier Rs.500.

The legislation was cleared by the lower house after the government removed the word "intent" along with 17 other amendments to the bill that had been a major source of wrangling between the government and a united Left and right opposition.

On Wednesday though, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Left MPs criticized the government and expressed their concerns over the risks at nuclear plants, but there was no severe opposition to the legislation.

Moving the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Bill, 2010, in the Lok Sabha, Minister of State for Science and Technology Prithviraj Chavan said the government had taken on board the amendments proposed by the opposition parties to the bill. The proposed law is critical for India`s nuclear deals with various countries.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a brief intervention during the four-and-a-half hour debate over the legislation, saying: "The nuclear liability bill completes our journey to end the apartheid in the nuclear field."

"To say that this bill is aimed at advancing US interests is far from the truth…and history will be the judge," Manmohan Singh said, in a bid to counter BJP leader Jaswant Singh`s charges.

Initiating the debate, Jaswant Singh asked the government to take the larger concerns of Indians on board and not those of a "smaller" US market.

He said the government was resorting to a "sleight of hand" by introducing the controversial words "and" and "intent" in the draft bill suggested by the parliamentary panel.

"It is a sleight of hand and trickery. First there was `and` then `intent`. It is simpler and easier to take parliament along," the former external affairs minister said, amid bouts of laughter.

He said the government was trying to "hustle" through with the legislation ahead of the US President Barack Obama`s visit to India.

"Why are you hustling the parliament and the issue? It is otherwise a very important issue," he maintained.

Congress MP Manish Tiwari said the first initiatives for ending nuclear isolation were taken by Jaswant Singh when he held talks with Strobe Talbot, the then US deputy secretary of state.

"When Manmohan Singh took over as the prime minister, he only took that forward," Tiwari said.

Janata Dal-United leader Sharad Yadav said the way the bill was brought suggested that the government was in a tearing hurry.

"Only a handful of people will benefit from nuclear energy. At least the government has tried to evolve a consensus," he said adding: "I would not like to be an impediment. The government has already decided on the bill."

The bill was later passed through a voice vote amid loud thumping of desks by MPs.

Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) MP Basudeb Acharia moved an amendment to raise the liability cap to Rs.10,000 crore but it was defeated even as he demanded electronic voting as the voice vote didn`t satisfy him. The electronic voting showed 252 MPs negating his amendment with only 25 votes in his favour.

The consensus over the bill was arrived at after the government altered a controversial clause stating that an operator would have the right to recourse in case of a nuclear accident if it was the consequence of an "act of a supplier or his employees done with the intent to cause nuclear damage".

Removing the word "intent", the clause now reads: "The nuclear incident has resulted as a consequence of an act of supplier or his employee, which includes supply of equipment or material with patent or latent defects or sub-standard services."

Chavan, in the last two days, held various rounds of meetings with the BJP and the Left parties.

Chavan said the legislation was required for providing prompt compensation, without having to go through legal processes, to the victims in the event of a nuclear accident.

He cited the Bhopal gas leak and said that in the absence of a relevant law, the victims had to run from pillar to post for compensation.

"We have seen what happened in Bhopal. This is to ensure that victims don`t have to run from pillar to post for compensation," he said.

The minister admitted that the foreign suppliers may fear that the law was too stringent, "but let me assure you that they are in accordance with the international laws that are in place elsewhere".


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