They say that when a lawyer can neither hammer home the law nor the facts, she must hammer on the table. So earlier this week, we saw the intelligent, suave and persuasive Jayanthi Natarajan in the avatar of a television tyrant who wouldn’t let anyone else speak until she had finished. And she never did finish.
The law has not covered itself in glory in the Bhopal case. The facts suggest that in the past, the government had sided with Union Carbide Corporation against the people, whom it had a monopoly right to represent. And the UPA government is now putting the issue to bed with the customary sleeping draught — yet another committee. No wonder Natarajan is hammering on the table. How else do you defend the indefensible?
To divert public attention from the Bhopal ruling, the UPA is urging us to learn from the disaster and move on. Where to? Unfortunately for the UPA, to the forthcoming Civil Nuclear Liability Bill, which is controversial even before it is tabled. The liability of the operator of a nuclear facility is capped at Rs 500 crore per incident, a fraction of the cost of clean-up alone. Actually, it’s the cost of five apartments in a posh new building coming up on Mumbai’s Napean Sea Road. The government reserves the right to increase liability by notification — or to decrease it to Rs 100 crore. And it will pay the difference in clean-up, reparation and rehabilitation costs.
There are two points worth noting here. One, that the government — the taxpayer, that is — will actually foot the whole bill because under the Atomic Energy Act, only the government and PSUs can operate nuclear installations. The Bill mentions only ‘operators’ and is silent on the liability of foreign suppliers, who can probably be sued in separate tort actions. Perhaps by the government, which may again appoint itself sole representative of affected populations and then make a hash of the case. The draft Bill should explicitly state foreign liability.
Secondly, it’s on this ground that Natarajan has pooh-poohed fears that foreign agencies will get away with murder again — the operator of nuclear facilities is finally the government, which is accountable to the people. But this is a half-truth. The Atomic Energy Act currently bars private nuclear operators. But this can be rectified by an amendment. Reliance Energy, Tata Power and GMR Group have reportedly expressed an interest in operating nuclear power plants. Public-private partnerships are sexy, and our governments are embarrassingly vulnerable to business lobbies.
So what, eh? They’re solid Indian companies. They can’t just run away from their liabilities like Union Carbide and Dow Chemical, its present owner. But what if they operate nuclear facilities in partnership with foreign agencies, or simply take on a large foreign stake? This, too, can be enabled by an investment-friendly government. And after a nuclear incident, the foreign interest can lift its stakes, strike its tents and do the midnight flit like Anderson.
Is that being paranoid? Perhaps, but the 25-year debacle that followed the Bhopal disaster was largely home-brewed. We now know that our government and courts are not perfect guardians of the national interest. And that it’s smarter to be paranoid first than to be screwed over afterwards.