N-suppliers’ liability - Kuldip Nayar - November 5, 2010

Source : www.dawn.com

IT is difficult to predict the verdict of history on the US-India nuclear pact. But what cannot be denied are the untiring efforts of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He even staked his government to get parliament`s nod.

Yet the opposition — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the communists making common cause for the first time in parliament`s history — was able to place substantial responsibility for any future compensation on the nuclear plant suppliers. It has now been enshrined in legislation. This was not to the liking of Manmohan Singh. He could visualise that the responsibility provision would keep American investors away, and this happened. They wanted the dilution of liability.

The prime minister saw cold water poured on his plan to bring American investors to the field of nuclear energy. But he is not the man to give up when at stake was cheap nuclear energy which he sees as the answer to poverty in the countryside. Therefore he has gone to the extent of signing the Convention on Supplementary Compensation at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. The convention sets parameters on a nuclear operator`s liability in the event of an accident.

That the prime minister has the power to sign an international convention is not the point at issue. He can do so. What is not understandable is why he has gone over the entire exercise outside India, outside parliament and outside his cabinet. In other words, whatever was agreed in parliament has in effect been negated by signing the convention.

Such things are not acceptable in democratic countries. Bypassing parliament means overriding the norms of democracy. Parliament was rightly concerned over the responsibility of the suppliers and debated for days to ensure that they would not run away from their moral and legal obligations to protect the public. A reluctant Manmohan Singh had to give in because of pressure from practically all parties in the opposition.

They too were keen to get cheap nuclear power, but they had a bitter experience with the 1984 Bhopal tragedy. An American company had installed an outdated gas plant which leaked, killing thousands. Till today it is not known why the American company, Union Carbide, was let off lightly and why its chairman was flown in a state plane to Delhi, en route to America.

Parliament has learned the lesson that if the responsibility of suppliers is not spelt out, many Bhopals could happen. Sadly, Manmohan Singh has undone by signing the convention what parliament institutionalised by law. That the two houses will see the debate revived about the suppliers` liability is of little satisfaction because the harm done through the convention cannot be undone.

I am surprised that neither the BJP, nor the left, has made an issue of the convention. The media too has kept quiet. Maybe, both the opposition and the media have not yet realised the repercussions of the convention which ensures that the suppliers will now have limited liability in the event of a Bhopal-style nuclear accident.

Could New Delhi have paid the price? The story circulating is that President Obama will push India`s case to be included as a member of the elite nuclear weapons club comprising the US, China, Great Britain, France and Russia. This is said to be a stepping stone to becoming a permanent member with veto rights in the UN Security Council. Moreover, this status will open India`s access to cutting-edge military, civilian and dual-use technologies.

India`s entire nuclear energy programme is a cloak and dagger story. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who asked Homi Bhabha to initiate the nuclear energy programme, may not have had the bomb in view, but definitely authorised the infrastructure to preserve India`s options.

The truth of when India decided to go for the bomb is in all likelihood contained within the Bhabha papers that are currently `preserved` within the confines of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). I have tried to access those papers, but have drawn a blank. I believe only a select few have been allowed to look at them. They include the official archivist at BARC, Indira Chowdhury, who has written an uncritical, glowing biography of Bhabha.

It is ironical that the clearance of colossal nuclear energy plans coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which has championed the cause of hundreds of thousands of displaced tribal people facing destruction with the completion of the Sardar Sarovar dam project. The major point of contrast, of course, pertains to land. The government is offering guaranteed availability of land to international and domestic investors, even as the fertile land faces imminent submergence. wallah

The damming of Narmada is a tragedy admitted even by union minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh. “I am not an anti-dam ,” Ramesh said. “But the fact remains that the Narmada project, one of the best planned projects in the world, has been one of the worst implemented.”

But then the Narmada leaders do not have the clout that the American nuclear plant suppliers have. Manmohan Singh has even bypassed parliament to make it possible for them to come to India. But he has not, even after giving promise, done anything to relocate thousands who have been driven out of their homes and hearths to enable the dam to come up.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

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