Power at the expense of safety? The Modi government may seek to dilute the liability laws that would indict nuclear energy suppliers in the event ofan accident

Kumar Sundaram Delhi 

The responses to India’s ratification of the IAEA’s Additional Protocol have been rather curious. The Left parties have been completely silent on the move, which they earlier claimed would jeopardise national security by allowing intrusive international inspections. This might be due to their own disarray or simply because the Protocol’s ratification was just a long-pending step of the Indo-US nuclear deal already concluded by the previous government.

On the other hand, the response of nuclear hawks like Bharat Karnad is to scoff at the Congress-era bureaucrats interests and inertia in the MEA. They are lamenting that the Protocol has closed the loop on the nuclear deal, making any further thermonuclear tests much more expensive diplomatically and in terms of the energy disruption – supply of fuel and technology for all imported reactors would be discontinued in case of a test. Karnad goes further in criticising  South Block and is pained that the foreign policy machine is not letting Modi’s grand vision and geostrategic guidelines materialise.

But, more curiously, industry mouthpieces, like The Economist, have found in it an opportunity to push their own agenda: the dilution of the nuclear liability law in India. The magazine has advised Modi to use his hefty majority in Parliament to amend the liability law passed in 2010 as it is a ‘deterrent’ for global corporates, putting ‘heavy financial responsibility on suppliers and contractors in case of an accident’. The Economist has urged Modi to move fast on this and revise the Act before the budget session, and definitely before the new PM’s visit to Washington in September this year. Last year, Manmohan Singh had similarly offered a dilution of the liability law during his US trip, as a ‘gift’. However, all he could muster was a favourable interpretation of the Act, not an amendment. Not surprisingly, it didn’t make the US happy enough. The BJP then had taken a strong objection to this gift.

Not only the international mainstream media, but also Indian newspapers like The Indian Express and DNA have strongly demanded a revision in the liability law on the occasion, as even Indian corporations would get their share in the nuclear pie as sub-suppliers and sub-sub-suppliers. Both The Economist and the Indian media editorials have pointed out that signing of the Additional Protocol only closes the loop on India being a ‘responsible’ nuclear power, but the main hurdle in the entry of the private players remains the liability law. In his op-ed in The Hindu, the Manmohan Singh government’s special envoy, Rakesh Sood, has also argued for limiting of the suppliers’ liability, albeit with a little more fine-balancing.

Section 17(b) of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, allows the nuclear operator, the NPCIL, the right to recourse against the supplier in case of an accident. This clause, ensuring limited hook on the suppliers, could be inserted into the Act by the sheer coincidence that the discussion in Parliament took place around the same time the Supreme Court verdict on Bhopal generated heated debates around the indemnification of Dow Chemicals. However, the government subsequently made every effort to dilute the suppliers’ liability – by introducing clauses in the law necessitating prior mention of the liability provision in the bilateral contract between the supplier and the operator, and later more nefariously by inserting product liability period of just five years in the Rules designed under the Act for its implementation. Eminent jurist Soli Sorabjee termed the Rules ‘ultra vires of the Act and going against its spirit, when Greenpeace sought his legal opinion on the issue.

Will Modi heed the corporate voices and dilute the suppliers’ liability by amending the law, and offer his own perfect gift to the US? If we see the unceremonious desertion of the BJP’s own long standing reservation on the IAEA agreement as a sign of things to come, it seems a strong possibility. And there are other more ominous signs. While on the one hand, Modi’s concerned minister has openly declared that green clearances will not be an obstacle in economic growth any longer, the Home Ministry and Intelligence Bureau have started hounding the NGOs and civil society voices, including grassroots agitating groups as well as reputed individuals.

The recent IB report reduces the diverse socio-political landscape of India, which is yet to find a proper way to express and address the destruction unleashed by religious and market fundamentalisms, into a caricature of conspiracy against the nation. While the militarist hawks competing with ostriches only fits the paranoid corporate state that India is fast becoming, the alarming crisis of our democracy is revealed.
The massive expansion of nuclear energy envisaged by the Indian government, and the new regime’s continued support for such policy, is itself a direct result of the government’s commitment to the nuclear supplying countries. India made advance promises for reactor purchases from France’s Areva, Russia’s Atomsroyexport and American nuclear giants like Westinghouse and GE in exchange for these countries’ support for an exemption for India at the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) in 2008, when essentially India’s nuclear weapons were legitimised and it was allowed an entry into international nuclear commerce.


It is under the pressure of the above commitment to the international nuclear lobby that the Indian government has been bulldozing everything that came in the way of implementing them – undermining and  diluting safety norms ironically in a post-Fukushima world, pushing through environmental clerances at gun-point, neglecting the adverse economies of these projects, crushing democratic dissent at the grassroots and trying to exempt the nuclear suppliers from liability in case of any accident.

It is absurd that nuclear expansion is being pushed in an entirely anachronistic fashion, in a world in which a number of countries have moved away from nuclear power after Fukushima, and is being held as a ‘national economic security’ issue and voices against this hijacking of the country’s energy future are being silenced brazenly. France, the global nuclear lobby’s poster boy, decided to lower its appetite for nuclear energy and increase its reliance on renewable sources in the same week when India was witch-hunting its green activists.

While some of us thought we were witnessing a fine-balancing of democratic anxieties in the first fortnight of the Modi government the IB report, deliberately leaked to the media and turned into prime time frenzy, has actually sought to announce the complete neoliberal takeover of the state.

India’s anachronistic push for nuclear energy in the face of a global shift from nuclear power after Fukushima is evidently independent of any domestic regime change and reflects the consensus of the ruling elite to use its own people’s lives and ecological risks as a bargain chip at the international stage. If there were any doubts (because the BJP had opposed the India-US nuclear agreement in Parliament when it was in opposition), its newly formed government has put an emphatic end to them. Both in terms of squandering the lessons of Fukushima and repressing any dissident voices on nuclear issues, Modi will run faster with the torch he has inherited from his predecessor.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2014

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