Lack of support from Opposition parties forced the UPA government on Monday to defer tabling a bill capping financial liability arising out of a nuclear accident.
While the bill would have passed through Lok Sabha, where the UPA has a majority with 274 seats in a 543-member House, the Rajya Sabha would have been a completely different story.
The Opposition, which was squarely behind the government on the women’s reservation bill, has since returned to its corner, looking ready to resume the fight. And as a unit — the BJP, the Left — all together.
Worse, 35 of the Congress’s own MPs went missing, in disregard of a party whip instructing every member to be present for the tabling of the legislation, called the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill 2010.
Worst, ally Trinamool Congress with 19 MPs looked uncertain. “If Trinamool leader Mamata Bannerjee is against it, then the bill is as good as dead. But we’re sure of her support as she can’t be on the same side as the Left,’’ said a Union minister who didn’t want to be named.
UPA floor managers, therefore, were quite certain the bill had to be deferred. It’s now likely to be tabled in April.
The bill seeks to cap liability arising out of a nuclear accident at Rs 2,200 crore. Of this, liability for the operator, a private firm or one owned by the government, will be Rs 500 crore.
“This is an important initiative as we don’t have any legal regime for compensation for nuclear damage, nor are we members of any international convention,” said Science and Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan.
But sceptics said this is a precondition cited by US companies to do business with India – setting up nuclear plants etc. And PM Manmohan Singh wants to table the bill before he leaves for the US next month.
The opposition — both Left and BJP — have said the cap of Rs 500 crore for the operator is too low. They have questioned the need to make the government pay the balance (Rs 2,200 crore minus Rs 500 crore).
The House received 15 notices from members opposing the Bill even before it was to be introduced. “These are being examined,” said Chavan.
The PM was said to be keen to have the Bill introduced and passed even without routing it to the standing committee as is done with any draft legislation.
He spoke to Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj on Sunday to get the BJP’s cooperation, but without success.
Before the Cabinet meeting, Singh was briefed. And immediately after the meeting, a note was sent to the Speaker informing her the government did not intend to introduce the bill.
When Kumar announced this, the opposition MPs sprang to their feet protesting. The NDA working chairman L.K. Advani asked the government to explain why the Bill was deferred suddenly.