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Now, nuclear liabilities bill under a cloud

By A BS Correspondent
March 10, 2010 02:46 IST
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The passage of the Women's Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday has not ended the problems of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

The Bharatiya Janata Party, the largest opposition party that helped pass the women's Bill, has now told the government that it would do nothing to jeopardise the Finance Bill and the Vote on Account  -- which needs to be passed by March 16 when Parliament goes into recess. But it would not help it pass the critical Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Bill.

The decision was conveyed by leader of the opposition Sushma Swaraj to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when they met on Monday to discuss the problems over the Women's Reservation Bill, following strong objections from the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), outside supporters of the UPA in Parliament. 

The Women's Reservation Bill sets aside 33 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies for women. The SP and RJD said they were not opposed to reservation for women per se but wanted caste quotas were incorporated.

The nuclear liabilities Bill is considered essential to jump-start civil nuclear commerce. India has a largely indigenous nuclear power programme and expects to generate 20,000 Mw of nuclear power by 2020 and 63,000 Mw by 2032 to meet burgeoning demand. Nuclear power currently accounts for just four per cent of the country's installed power capacity.

If the UPA could have banked on SP and RJD's support, it could have ignored the opposition's objections. But in the current environment, it is entirely possible that if the Bill is introduced in the lower House, it could be defeated.

The Bill needs a simple majority of 272 votes to pass in the 543-member House and, as things stand, the opposition -- including former UPA supporters -- could have 221 votes (see table).

The UPA allies have 271 seats between them but within these, the Trinamool Congress with 19 seats is considered a wild card and the support of various independent parties is uncertain.

The Cabinet had cleared the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill on November 19, 2009 and passing the Bill will allow the country to join the international convention on civil liability for nuclear damage.

The Bill is designed to insulate suppliers from the risk of law suits by channeling legal liability for an accident entirely to the nuclear power plant operator and granting Indian courts sole jurisdiction over accident-related cases.

The Bill places a limit on the compensation to be paid in the case of an accident at a nuclear site and places responsibility for paying this compensation on the operator and not the suppliers or foreign companies installing the reactors in India (power plant operators, however, have a right of recourse against the suppliers).

Those who oppose the Bill say it has been designed to keep from the reach of Indian courts, American reactor suppliers who want legal protection from a Bhopal-type situation -- where the victims of India's worst industrial accident filed multi-million dollar claims against Union Carbide Corporation in India and the US.

Several large American companies like GE and Westinghouse besides French major Areva plan to supply reactors to India.

The BJP's opposition to the Bill is also based on the low liability level. Swaraj described the "Rs 500 crore limit" on the liability of private service providers in case of accidents as "offensively low".

The BJP had made its stand on the bill clear at a meeting between the then National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon and leader of the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley earlier this month.

Nuclear power has been a contentious issue in India for several years. In mid-2008, the first UPA government faced and narrowly survived a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha after the Left parties, which supported the government from outside at the time, opposed the signing of a civil nuclear agreement with the International Atomic Energy Commission.

The agreement opened India to foreign nuclear technology subject to international monitoring and a separation of civil and military nuclear facilities. The Left and several other parties objected to the latter two conditions.

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