Govt & BJP seal their N-deal

Written by Political Bureau | New Delhi | Updated: Aug 18 2010, 06:52am hrs
Unable to have its way on the Civil Liabilities for Nuclear Damage Bill, the government has been forced to blink and agree to incorporate the suggestions made by BJP in order to ensure its smooth passage in Parliament.

The concessions include a three-fold rise in the upper limit of the financial liability of a nuclear power plant operator in the event of an accidentfrom Rs 500 crore to Rs 1500 croreand strict provisions to make suppliers of nuclear equipment liable in case the accident was caused by negligence or manufacturing defect.

The proposed changes have won the approval of the BJP, making its passage in the Parliament almost a certainty. The Parliamentary Standing Committee, which has been examining the issue, has finalised its report and is slated to be table it in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday.

Passage of the Bill clears the way for operationalisation of the landmark India-US nuclear deal setting the stage for international companies to participate in the countrys nuclear energy sector. Not only the US, Russia and France, too, have insisted on such a legislation before entering the market.

The government circulated a note on Tuesday morning specifying the proposed changes in the Bill after which top BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Yashwant Sinha had a meeting with finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and science and technology minister Prithviraj Chavan to express their support.

The proposed legislation seeks to define the financial liability of a nuclear power plant operator in the event of a nuclear accident. In its original form, it had been opposed by both the BJP as well as Left parties, which had pointed out that the maximum liability amount of Rs 500 crore, was extremely low in comparison to the damage that a nuclear incident might cause.

They had also been very unhappy with the fact that the suppliers of nuclear equipment had been virtually exempted from having any liability.

The proposed changes take care of both these concerns. Apart from raising the maximum limit of operator liability to Rs 1500 crore with a provision to enhance the amount, if requiredthe revised bill also expressly mentions that it will apply only to nuclear power plants operated by government or government-owned companies. This specific mention was not present in the original Bill, leading to BJP raising concerns about government trying to allow private players in the nuclear energy sector.

The original Bill said that in case the damage was assessed to be worth more than Rs 500 crore, the government would be liable for rest of the amount, up till a maximum of 300 million Special Drawing Rights (approx Rs 2100 crore). Even this amount has now been made subject to an upward revision, if needed.

On the issue of the financial liability of suppliers of nuclear equipment, the government has agreed to retain the contentious provision, clause 17 (b), which was earlier sought to be dropped from the original. This provision said that suppliers would be held liable in case of wilful act or gross negligence. In fact, its scope has now been expanded to include defective equipment or substandard quality. The supplier will also be held for any defect being caused during transport of the equipment.