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Verdict in Bhopal case stirs nuclear bill outrage

Opponents say the proposed law to cap liabilities after an accident would let US companies avoid compensating victims.

Activists from the Communist Party of India protest against the Bhopal gas disaster verdict in New Delhi.
Activists from the Communist Party of India protest against the Bhopal gas disaster verdict in New Delhi.

MUMBAI // A bill aimed at capping the compensation paid out by foreign firms running India's nuclear power plants in the event of an accident has come under increasing opposition after last week's Bhopal gas tragedy verdict. The Civil Nuclear Liability Bill, a crucial piece of legislation needed to bring into operation a 2008 accord with the United States for full atomic power co-operation, proposes to cap foreign firms' liability at US$450 million (Dh1.7 billion) in the event of a nuclear accident.

But opposition parties and civil rights groups are invoking last week's much-lamented Bhopal court verdict to argue against ratifying the legislation which they said could shield US companies from properly compensating in the event of a disaster. Last week, eight men responsible for the poisonous fumes of methyl isocyanate that leaked in 1984 from the Bhopal chemical factory, owned by the US company Union Carbide, were given a two-year jail sentence. The sentence for one of the world's worst industrial disasters, which claimed 25,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands of Bhopal's residents suffering debilitating health problems to this day, ignited outrage across the country.

After years of negotiating and legal wrangling, Union Carbide in 1989 paid $470m in compensation - a figure that fell short of the amount sought by the disaster's victims. Opposition and campaign groups say the Bhopal compensation is only slightly more than what the nuclear liability bill mandates US companies to pay if a nuclear accident were to happen. They say if a nuclear mishap were to occur, $450m would be a pittance to pay for victims and take care of environmental damage.

Civil rights groups accused the government of trying to protect US interests, instead of its own public. They say capping the nuclear liability is grossly unfair, especially given that US companies stand to rake in billions of dollars in profit from the Indian market. "Even 25 years after the Bhopal tragedy, people are not fully compensated. In case of a nuclear disaster there would be many more people, who will be wiped out, suffer from radiation and wait for treatment for many years," Uday Kumar, the co-ordinator of the National Alliance of Anti-nuclear Movements, a civil rights group, said in a statement.

The liability bill, which is being reviewed by the government, also promises to grant full immunity to the manufacturer and supplier of components for the nuclear reactor. "The nuclear liability bill will have to be redrafted," AB Bardhan, the leader of the opposition Communist Party of India, who is gathering political support to stymie the bill in parliament, told reporters in New Delhi last week. "The whole approach towards the legislation will have to be revised. Full liability has to be imposed on the operator as well as the supplier."

The US government has been jockeying hard for the Indian government to expeditiously pass the legislation, which would open access for US nuclear plant manufacturers such as General Electric and Westinghouse to India's $175bn nuclear market. India's justice minister sought to assuage concerns about the nuclear liability bill, saying the government was ready to reassess clauses related to culpability of foreign nuclear suppliers.

"There is need to take note of the lessons learnt from the Bhopal case, while looking at questions of investigation, liability, compensation and punishment," Veerappa Moily, the justice minister, said last week. "We could even think of a stand-alone legislation so that this kind of offence won't be committed again." Bhopal victims say the man held ultimately responsible for the disaster - Warren Anderson, the former chief executive of Union Carbide - is still beyond the reach of Indian authorities. For nearly two decades, Mr Anderson - currently 88 years old and residing in the United States, ignored multiple summons to face trial in India. The Indian government said it was considering re-initiating Mr Anderson's extradition proceedings with the United States.

Some analysts have said that despite the compensation cap, the legislation has several clauses which should bring swifter compensation. The nuclear liability bill is "no-fault" legislation, said Ravi Visvesvaraya Prasad, a New Delhi-based independent technology consultant who has studied the finer points of this legislation. He said the legislation relieves the victims of the burden of proving negligence in the event of a nuclear accident. The operator is compelled to pay compensation irrespective of the cause.

"The bill will bring speedy compensation to the victims ? unlike Bhopal, where they had to wait long years," Mr Prasad said. Some observers are urging the government to look at its own shortcomings in dealing with the Bhopal disaster. "Issues of liability and compensation are no doubt important, but the public discourse in India has missed another equally important point: has India built the necessary capacity, institutions and processes to manage such disasters?" said Nitin Pai, editor of Pragati - The National Interest Review, a monthly magazine.

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