Apprehending trouble from opposition, Government on Monday deferred introduction in Lok Sabha of nuclear liability bill which is a key step in operationalisation of the landmark Indo-US nuclear deal.
"I have a request from the Minister Prithviraj Chavan that government does not intend to introduce the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill today," Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar announced in the House.
The bill was mentioned in the list of business for the day and the government's decision sparked protests the opposition. Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj demanded that since the matter was listed, a motion had to be moved for withdrawal of the Bill from the agenda.
The Speaker, however, rejected the demand saying that such a motion cannot be moved as the bill has not been introduced in the House.
Accepting Speaker's ruling, NDA working chairman L K Advani said the government should tell the House why it was not going ahead with introduction of the bill since it has been listed.
The government move came apparently in view of declaration by the Left parties and BJP that they would strongly oppose the proposed legislation.
The bill pegs the maximum amount of liability in case of each nuclear accident at Rs 300 crore to be paid by the operator of the nuclear plant.
However, the draft bill also has provisions that would enable the government to either increase or decrease the amount of liability of any operator.
Advani said the bill was an important business listed for the day but the government has suddenly decided not to introduce it. "The government should tell the House why it is not introducing the bill. Government should tell the House whether it has a re-think on it or whether they are not introducing because of opposition to the bill," he said. However, there, was no response from the government. Earlier objecting to the government's decision, Swaraj said, "The House does not run by the intention of the government but by rules of the House."
Left parties have dubbed the Bill as "a harmful piece of legislation meant to serve the interests of the United States and its nuclear industry." Describing the legislation as "an outcome of the India-US nuclear deal", they said "the government is seeking to fulfil a hidden commitment to deliver the legislation that safeguards the interests of the United States at the expense of the safety of Indian people".
The BJP has said that it had "serious reservations" on the bill "since it caps the liability of American firms." The Left parties said that under the proposed legislation all the liability would fall upon the operator which is state-owned the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL).
The operator's liability has been fixed at Rs 300 crore, while the overall liability is capped at Rs 2,200 crore. "This means the government will have to foot the bill for the rest of the amount. Since the NPCIL is a public sector enterprise, the whole bill is to be footed by the Indian taxpayer, while the US supplier goes scot-free," the Left parties said.
The bill was approved by the Union cabinet on November 20 last year.
Enactment of the liability law is one of the three key requirements because of which the Indo-US nuclear deal, concluded in September 2008 could not be operationalised so far. The other two requirements are setting up of a dedicated reprocessing facility under IAEA safeguards and declaration by India on non-proliferation.
National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon had met BJP leader Arun Jaitley last week to brief him about the bill, but the main opposition is yet to have all its concerns addressed. Jaitley is understood to have given a list of queries regarding the bill to Menon but was yet to get any reply.
According to the provisions in the draft legislation, the operator would not be liable for any nuclear damage if the incident was caused by "grave national disaster of exceptional character", armed conflict or act of terrorism and suffered by person on account of his own negligence.
The bill also provides for establishment of Nuclear Damage Claims Commission which will have one or more claims commissioners for a specified area. The claims commissioner shall have all powers of a civil court for the purpose of taking evidence on oath, enforcing attendance of witnesses, compelling the discovery and production of documents and other material objects.