What is ‘Intent’?
No, I don’t mean philosophically (although I’ve been known to run my mouth off about that too).
The Union Cabinet on Friday cleared amendments to the Nuclear Liability bill that say that in the case of a nuclear accident, nuclear suppliers will only be held liable if the cause of the accident can be shown to be intentional. That sounds fair enough, right? I mean, if the accident is an accident, how can the supplier of the nuclear fuel be held liable? On the other hand, if the supplier has intentionally done something that results in a disaster, how can they not be held liable?
The actual text of the bill can be found here. The amendment in question, a change made to clause 17 in Chapter IV, reads as follows:
17. The operator of a nuclear installation shall have right to recourse when:
a) such right is expressly provided for in a contract in writing; and
b) the nuclear incident has resulted from the wilful act or gross negligence on the part of the supplier of the material, equipment or services, or of his employee;
c) the nuclear incident has resulted from the act of commission or omission of a person done with the intent to cause nuclear damage.
17(c) is clear enough. If somebody not related to the nuclear facility does something to cause a nuclear accident, and is successful, the operator has the right to seek damages from that person. The disputed parts are (a) and (b) and the ‘and’ in between. With the ‘and’, the bill requires that the operator (which for things like nuclear reactors will be the government of India), prove that there was either gross negligence or outright intent on the part of the supplier, and that that caused the nuclear incident.
Here’s the problem with that: We suck. Our judiciary is spineless, not to mention impotent. Our politicians have no political will (or any kind of will); or if they do, they’ve been bought and paid for a long time ago. Our public administration cannot deal with even feeding our own people, even when we have godowns overflowing with foodgrains. To expect such a public administration to deal with the results of a nuclear disaster would be stupidity.
There cannot be a better example of our incompetence, and our blithe unconcern for other people’s suffering than the tragedy of Bhopal. The corporation that owned the chemical plant, Union Carbide, were unquestionably grossly negligent. They stored a deadly gas in badly maintained containers in a factory in a heavily populated region, ignored every warning sign, abandoned safety systems to save money, and had no disaster plan, and accused ‘some disgruntled worker’ of sabotage. It has taken us 25 years to convict the now old and arthritic people who were on the board of Union Carbide India. Union Carbide, and Dow Chemicals who own Union Carbide Chemicals, were not only let off the hook, but were allowed to sell Union Carbide India.
We can’t, of course, do anything now, lest there be any chilling effect on US investment relationship, and because the US State Department says that the Bhopal tragedy is now a closed case; and if the US State Department says something…
Indian taxpayers are going to pay the Rs. 1265 crores to clean up Bhopal. How much of that money will go into cleaning up Bhopal and how much into the pockets of people who will be running this cleanup (or not running the cleanup) is left to the imagination of any of us.
It’s taken us 25 years to prove ‘intent’ in Bhopal, and we’ve still ended up paying for the damages ourselves. And the government wants this to happen again when something goes wrong with a nuclear reactor? The difference is that this time, everything that happens will be ‘legal‘.
The BJP and the Left are protesting the current form of the bill, although nobody knows how long this will last. The Left is a nonentity, and the BJP is probably only bickering about the rates they’ll be getting for their souls.
UPDATE: The Lok Sabha has passed the Nuclear Civil Liability Bill, 2010, after editing clause 17 to remove the emphasis on ‘intent’.