- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2010

NEW DELHI | The lower house of the Indian Parliament brought the U.S.-India nuclear deal close to operational status Wednesday by passing the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, laying down how much damages foreign nuclear-equipment suppliers could have to pay in the event of an accident.

The passage by the Lok Sabha — House of the People — ahead of a scheduled November visit by President Obama is seen as a personal victory for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who signed the landmark civilian agreement with President Bush in 2008.

Mr. Singh rejected opposition claims that the bill was a sop to the U.S. and multinational corporations, telling Parliament that the bill marks the end of Indias isolation in the global nuclear market.

“I categorically state that this bill is a completion of journey to end the nuclear apartheid, which the world had imposed on India” after it conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, he said Wednesday.

America’s General Electric Co. and Westinghouse Electric Corp. are among the foreign energy suppliers that stand to gain a share of India’s civilian nuclear business, estimated as possibly reaching $150 billion a year. American companies consider a liability cap particularly important because, unlike the state-subsidized French and Russian nuclear suppliers, they are not underwritten by their government.

Parliament passed the bill by a voice vote Wednesday evening amid lawmakers thumping on their desks after it was tabled in the morning over a contentious clause on the liability of suppliers in case of accident in the civil nuclear damages.

The bill was amended to cap damages that nuclear suppliers would pay in the event of an accident at 15 billion Indian rupees (about $320 million) — three times the earlier proposal of 5 billion rupees (about $107 million), which the legislature’s Standing Committee on Science and Technology denounced as ridiculously low.

India’s main opposition group, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), wound up supporting the bill after 18 amendments, though left-wing parties continued to oppose the bill after a Wednesday effort by Basudeb Acharia of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) to raise the liability cap to 100 billion rupees (about $2.13 billion) failed on a 252-25 vote.

Mr. Singh told Parliament that the civil nuclear liability caps would not compromise India’s interests and every possible safety measure and norm would be applied.

“We will do everything to strengthen the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Board. The concern over safety is one I share with the opposition,” he said.

The bill will now go to the upper Rajya Sabha — Council of States — for ratification and then to the president to sign it into a law. Both steps are considered likely. The U.S. Congress already has ratified the deal.

The proposal became particularly controversial for Mr. Singh and his ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government after a recent criminal-court verdict put the 1984 Bhopal catastrophe back onto India’s front pages. In the world’s deadliest industrial accident, 15,000 people were killed and 500,000 injured when a toxic cloud was released from a chemical plant operated by an Indian subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corp.

In 1989, Union Carbide paid the Indian government a $470 million settlement, which is widely seen in India as a meager cheapening of human life considering both the size of the catastrophe and this summer’s criminal conviction of seven former managers for negligent homicide.

The last hurdle to the bill was a dispute over the phrase “intent” in the liability provision, which said foreign suppliers could be held liable when “the nuclear incident has resulted as a consequence of an act of supplier or his employees, done with the intent to cause nuclear damage, and such act includes supply of equipment or material with patent or latent defects or substandard services.”

The opposition said the requirement of “intent” would provide an escape route to the suppliers in the event of an accident. The final draft deleted that phrase “done with the intent to cause nuclear damage.”