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A moral meltdown

The PM’s claim that the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill will create a resurgent India is misleading. It will only favour US firms and their Indian ‘add ons’, writes Sitaram Yechury.

india Updated: Aug 30, 2010 21:49 IST
Sitaram Yechury
Sitaram Yechury
Hindustan Times

The prime minister has finally spoken in the Parliamentary session. Despite the unprecedented procedure of unanimously adopting a resolution moved by the Chair in both Houses, calling upon the government to take all measures to protect the aam aadmi from the adverse impact of the price rise, the PM didn’t intervene. Likewise, he remained silent in the debates on the alarming situation in Kashmir and on the plight of the Bhopal victims. That he chose to intervene on the nuclear liability Bill establishes that silence is often more eloquent than words in expressing the real intentions and priorities of this government.

Reacting to charges that this legislation was aimed at promoting American interests, he said that “this is not the first time that such a charge has been made against me.” The reference is to his 1992 budget that ushered in neo-liberal reforms, which he claims has, today, created “a resurgent and assertive India”. Two decades later, the impact of this nuclear liability Bill would be similar, he claims.

‘Resurgent India’ indeed! For whom? Fifty-two Indian US dollar billionaires hold a fourth of India’s GDP today. On the other hand, official estimates show that 77 per cent of Indians survive on less than R20 a day. While this column has repeatedly drawn attention to such creation of two Indias, the most high-profile Congress general secretary has now thus spoken.

That the reforms will widen the rich-poor divide was always known. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, in March 1995, admitted: “In the context of the reforms that we have embarked upon presently in our country” required the need to “commit the resources required to realise the rights for the poor”. Thus, within three years, it became clear that the omnipotent ‘market’ and ‘reforms’ by themselves won’t eliminate poverty. On the contrary, as we see today, the economic disparity has only widened sharply. This is the reality of the 1992 reforms, two decades later.

More recently, last December, Manmohan Singh himself spoke defensively at the conference of the Indian Economic Association on poverty reduction. In an admission of guilt of sorts he said poverty “has continued to decline after the economic reforms at least at the same rate as it did before”. Does this create a ‘resurgent and assertive India’ for all?

Clearly, the neo-liberal growth trajectory was — and is — designed to widen the hiatus between the two Indias, notwithstanding the rhetorical concern for the aam aadmi. The ‘shining’ India’s luminosity is directly proportional to the deprivation of ‘suffering’ India. Likewise, this nuclear liability Bill is patently designed to promote nuclear commerce for American corporations and their domestic ‘add ons’. The PM has announced the target of generating 40,000 MW of nuclear power. By using the nuclear option, India would be spending way beyond R3 lakh crore more than by using the available thermal, hydro or other options. This cost difference, which translates as corporate profits, can build nearly 20,000 fully-equipped 100-bed hospitals or 2.5 lakh Navodaya Vidyalayas with full boarding facilities for 100 students. Super profits for American corporations or true concern for the aam aadmi — this is the question today. The answer, unfortunately for our people, is in favour of the former.

However much we may wish that a nuclear accident never happens, when it does, it causes catastrophic damage to human life and property. The question of liability on both the supplier and operator of nuclear power plants in providing compensation, hence, becomes important. In the context of the plight of the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, due to the absence of adequate liability laws, the Union home minister spoke in the Rajya Sabha recently of “a deep sense of guilt that in all these 26 years neither the executive nor parliament appeared to have exercised the vigil and supervision that the situation warranted. And, in a sense, the elected political class of the country let down the victims of Bhopal.” It is not the ‘political class’ but the ruling classes in the government, where the Congress and the BJP find common place, that have let them down. They have, once again, joined to pass this Bill.

I had to counter such guilt-free abdication of responsibility by the successive Congress and BJP governments by setting the record straight in the Rajya Sabha. The Left had been raising this issue all along since 1984. Unfortunately, for the aam aadmi, this fell on deaf ears. Similarly, our pleas now to hold the American corporate giant, Dow Chemicals, that acquired Union Carbide liable for damages are falling on deaf ears.

Today, the CPI(M) is forewarning the government and the country that the legal structure for adequate liability in the event of a nuclear accident must be ensured, else, a tragedy exponentially worse than Bhopal is waiting to happen.

Many countries in the world have fixed a floor for the amount of liability payable in the case of a nuclear accident. Instead of this, the present Indian law fixes a ceiling. In the case of a nuclear accident, a ceiling makes no sense, as the amounts of compensation would depend upon the gravity of the accident. By not heeding to this suggestion and refusing to raise the limits of compensation, the Indian ruling classes are, once again, bartering away people’s interests for corporate profits. An alternative political trajectory for realising India’s real potential is necessary as the Congress and the BJP unequivocally converge on issues of neo-liberal economic reforms and subservience to American imperialism.

Heed this forewarning, if for nothing else, that a nuclear accident does not discriminate between the minuscule ‘resurgent’ India and the overwhelmingly impoverished real India.

Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Aug 30, 2010 21:46 IST