India’s Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill: A Red Carpet to the US Companies

The sellout of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to US is continuing. This time it has readily fulfilled one of the important agendas of Hillary Clinton’s business trip to India[1] in July 2009 – to introduce a bill to ensure that a Bhopal-like disaster[2] does not trouble the US companies. The two Governments are committed to helping US transnational companies like General Electric Company and Westinghouse Electric Company, a subsidiary of Japan’s Toshiba Corporation, that are champing to supply nuclear equipment and lure India’s $175 billion nuclear market. India expects to set up 40,000 MW of nuclear power plants over the next 20 years.

The India-US nuclear Agreement not only links India more closely to US and its global interests, and creates market for US conventional weapons, but also boosts US trade in a profitable sector, nuclear industry. During her visit to India Hillary Clinton said that India had approved two sites for the construction of two US nuclear reactors. She said, “I am also pleased that Prime Minister Singh told me that sites for two nuclear parks for US companies have been approved by the government.” However, what was not clear at that time was whether India had agreed to the US’ demand for legal immunity to its companies in case of a nuclear accident.

The clearance by the Union Cabinet of the text of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill (For full text of the Bill, click in November 2009 for introduction in the Parliament, and the attempt by the government to introduce the Bill in the Parliament in March 15, 2010, though hastily withdrew in the last minute on account of strong opposition from majority of parliamentarians, unfolded its compliance to the US demand. Although the Congress-led government maintains that the Bill is crucial for all foreign companies, including Russian and French, the clearance of the Bill is important to the American companies. Because they are at a competitive disadvantage, as they are privately-owned, while Russian and French companies are fully or partly state-owned, and their accident liability is underwritten by their governments. The importance of the Bill for the American companies is very much evident in the report given by the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake to a US House committee: “We are hoping to see action on nuclear liability legislation that would reduce liability for American companies and allow them to invest in India.”

What stands out in the controversial Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill is the extent to which Indian government goes to address American rather than Indian interests. The Bill aids the business interests of the American reactor builders, and provides them legal immunity from any victim-initiated civil suit or criminal proceedings in an Indian court or in a court in their home country. In the process, it seeks to financially burden Indian taxpayers (including the victims of nuclear disaster) and impede the rights of victims of any nuclear accident.

The proposed Bill puts the responsibility, in case of a nuclear accident, on the “operator” of the facility and not on the supplier of the equipment or the builder of the facility. Clause 4 of the Bill says, “The operator of the nuclear installation shall be liable for nuclear damage caused by a nuclear incident.” The government of India, as owner of the nuclear reactors, will operate through its “operator”, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL). According to the Clause 6 of the Bill, the maximum financial liability, in the event of a nuclear accident, is set at the rupees equivalent of 300 million special drawing rights (SDRs), which is equal to $458 million (Rs. 2,087 crore). The NPCIL is liable for up to Rs. 500 crores ($109 million). Clause 17 allows only the operator (NPCIL), not the victims, to sue manufacturers and suppliers. The recourse taken by the operator will yield only Rs. 500 crore at maximum. This meager compensation will embolden the nuclear reactor manufacturers to choose the option of maximizing profits by reducing building and safety standards without fear of prosecution.

The Indian government is liable for damages, where the liability exceeds Rs. 500 crores, between Rs. 500 crores and Rs. 2,087 ($458 million) only. It is a move of the congress-led UPA government to get the Bill on capping civil nuclear liability in order to pave the way for the American transnational companies to export their nuclear reactors to India without having to bear the full liability on account of an accident.

In the US the financial liability for a nuclear accident is set at $10.5 billion. This gives a glimpse of how Congress-led UPA government values the life of Indian citizens.

Throughout the text of the Bill a mythical distinction has been made between the “operator” and the Indian government, since the “operator” (NPCIL) is the state-run and public funded Indian facility. That means, ultimately it is the Indian tax-payers (including the victims of a nuclear accident) who will pay when a nuclear accident occurs due to faulty design of nuclear installation or substandard equipment. The profiteering transnational companies will go scot free. Thus the legislation legalizes the principle: “Profits are private, accident-related liabilities are all public.”

The Bill also limits the time to make claim within 10 years. Clause 18 states: “The right to claim compensation for any nuclear damage caused by a nuclear incident shall extinguish if such claim is not made within a period of 10 years from the date of incident.” That provision was retained despite the Environment and Forest Ministry’s note of caution that the 10-year time limit was untenable. Because the nuclear damage to human and animal life and the environment are long-term, and damage to human health from a serious radioactive release “involves changes in DNAs, resulting in mutagenic and teratogenic changes, which take a long time to manifest.”

The Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine in 1986 caused extensive damage. The Three Mile Island nuclear plant led to 14 years of clean-up, costing $1 billion. The Chernobyl accident not only resulted in several lives being lost, but also led to radioactive exposure of at least 6 lakh people living not only in Ukraine, but also in far off areas such as Belarus and Russia.

The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill denies the victims of a nuclear accident their right to take a legal action in judicial courts in India or the home country of the manufacturer or supplier. Because all nuclear damage claims will be dealt with by a “Nuclear Damage Claims Commissioner” whose verdict will be “final” and cannot be appealed in any court. According to the Clause 35 “No civil court shall have jurisdiction to entertain any suit or proceedings in respect of any matter which the Claims Commissioner or the Commission, as the case may be, is empowered to adjudicate under this Act and no injunction shall be granted by any court or other authority in respect of any action taken or to be taken in pursuance of any power conferred by or under this Act.” This is contrary to the provisions of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution: “Protection Of Life And Personal Liberty: No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”

Dr. E.A.S. Sarma, former Energy Secretary, says that finding a readily obliging partner in India, the US government seems to have no hesitation whatsoever in coaxing the Indians to sign the deal and open the floodgates to US multinationals to do business in India in such a hazardous activity. The pressure from the US government and transnational companies on the Congress-led government is immense. The US is hopeful and optimistic that India would “soon step up to its responsibilities” to get the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill cleared by Parliament, US ambassador to India Timothy J Roemer said recently. “We are hopeful and optimistic that this will happen sooner rather than later and India will step up to its responsibilities and obligation to complete this deal.” He said the civil nuclear deal was important for both India and the US and “part of this completion is for Parliament to press this Bill.”

Thus, the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill is designed specifically keeping the interests of the US multinational corporations in mind, not the welfare of potential victims (who elected the representatives of the government) of the disaster. Like the India-US agriculture trade treaty, Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (KIA), which is designed to satisfy the greed of US Agribusiness companies such as Monsanto, the proposed Nuclear Damage Bill attempts to lay a red carpet for the US companies to make huge profits in India without any accountability in case of any disaster. The Congress-led government is doing this by promoting myths: “food security” in the case of the former, and “energy security” in the case of the latter.

 1. Kamalakar Duvvuru, “Hillary Clinton’s Business Trip to India,” in DissidentVoice (August 11, 2009).

2. One of the world’s worst industrial disasters in 1984, when a gas leak in a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, killed an estimated 8000 people. The Indian government was severely criticized for accepting what was called a “paltry compensation” of about $470 million for the victims.



Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: