Political parties across the spectrum have called for a rethink on the contentious civil nuclear liability bill in the wake of the Bhopal gas tragedy verdict that handed out a meagre penalty to the accused, 26 years after the incident.
The government too has acknowledged the need for reconsidering some provisions of the legislation following Monday's trial court judgment that held eight accused guilty of criminal negligence in the 1984 Bhopal gas leak disaster and sentenced them to two years' imprisonment.
Shedding their ideological differences, the Left parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reacted in an almost similar manner to the Bhopal trial verdict.
They said the government should rethink the bill, a key step towards operationalising the India-US civil nuclear deal, and institute proper safeguards to protect the interests of victims in case of a nuclear accident.
"The nuclear liability bill will have to be redrafted. The whole approach towards the legislation will have to be revised," Communist Party of India (CPI) leader AB Bardhan said on Tuesday.
"Full liability has be imposed on the operator as well as the supplier," said Bardhan.
MB Rajesh, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) MP who is also a member of the parliamentary standing committee on energy, said: "It is a pro-nuclear suppliers bill as it does not underline any responsibility to the American nuclear companies who would be supplying the reactors."
The CPI-M said in a statement: "The Bhopal disaster and the utterly flawed legal framework shows how the American suppliers and owners have escaped any criminal liability.
"In this context the civil nuclear liability bill which excludes foreign suppliers from any liability may help more Warren Andersons," said the party which fiercely opposed the proposed nuclear legislation during the last session of parliament.
"The bill limits compensation to even less than the paltry Bhopal settlement. Pushing ahead with the nuclear liability bill means playing with the safety and interests of Indian people," said the party.
The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010, which has been referred to as the parliament's standing committee on science and technology after fierce opposition from major political parties, fixes the maximum amount of liability in case of a nuclear accident at Rs.500 crore, to be paid by the operator of the nuclear plant.
The legislation makes the operator exclusively liable in case of an accident, but there is no mention of the suppliers' liability.
These provisions have prompted parallels with the Bhopal gas tragedy. Lethal gas had leaked out from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal on the night of Dec 2-3, 1984, killing thousands instantly and many more later. Twenty six years on, a court imposed a meagre fine of Rs.100,000 on the eight accused, including Keshub Mahindra, who then headed the Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL).
Within hours of the trial court's verdict, the BJP seized on it to demand a revision of the civil nuclear liability legislation in the light of the painful Bhopal experience.
"The government should learn proper lessons from the Bhopal gas tragedy. In light of the bitter experience of the bill, the government should reconsider the nuclear bill seriously," said senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad Monday.
The government has also been quick to acknowledge the need for a rethink on the nuclear liability bill.
"There is a need to take note of the lessons learnt [from the Bhopal case], while looking at [questions of] investigation, liability, compensation and punishment," Law Minister M Veerappa Moily said on Monday when asked about whether the government would heed the message of Bhopal while finalising the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill.
Moily also stressed that laws relating to industrial disasters needed to be strengthened: "We could even think of a standalone legislation so that this kind of offence won't be committed again."
Meanwhile, former Chief Justice of India, AH Ahmadi on Tuesday rejected the criticism about dilution of charge against former Union Carbide executives in Bhopal gas tragedy case, saying there was no concept of vicarious liability in criminal law.
Justice Ahmadi had headed the Supreme Court bench in 1996 that converted the CBI charge to punish the accused under Section 304-II of the Indian Penal Code, which provides for a 10-year jail term into a lesser harsher Section 304-A, with only two years maximum punishment.
“One has to work within the system, within the framework of law. It is easy to speak today, to swing with the tide,” Justice Ahmadi said reacting to criticism that the decision given by his bench led to lesser punishment given by the Bhopal court on Monday.
“There is no concept of vicarious liability. If my driver is driving and meets with a fatal accident, I don't become liable to be prosecuted under 304-II,” he said.
Justice Ahmadi said a fresh law was needed to deal with Bhopal-type disasters. “Even the existing law has to be amended for a higher punishment,” the former CJI said.
Justice Ahmadi said he was not claiming that he was always right. “We can go wrong but there are remedies.” “If I had made mistake then there was ample time for people to get it reviewed. CBI could have got it reviewed and the NGOs could have got it. Why not? It only goes to show that the decision was correct,” he remarked.