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Between the line

Nuclear clock and dagger
November 10, 2010


IT’S difficult to say what will be the verdict of history on the Indo-US nuclear pact. But one thing which cannot be denied is the untiring, relentless effort by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He even staked his government to get the nod of parliament.

Yet the opposition – the BJP and the communists making common cause for the first time in the history of parliament – was able to place substantial responsibility for any future compensation on the nuclear plant suppliers. It has now been enshrined in legislation. This was not to the liking of Manmohan Singh. He could visualise that the responsibility provision would keep the American investors away, and this happened. They wanted the dilution of liability.

The Prime Minister saw cold water poured on his plan to bring American investors to the field of nuclear energy. But he is not the man to give up when the stake was cheap nuclear energy which he sees as his answer to the problem of poverty in the countryside. Therefore he has gone to the extent of signing the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) at the IAEA in Vienna. The convention sets parameters on a nuclear operator’s liability in the event of an accident.

That the Prime Minister has power to sign an international convention is not the point at issue. He can do so. What is not understandable is why he has gone over the entire exercise outside India, outside parliament and outside his cabinet. In other words, whatever was agreed in parliament has in effect been negated by signing the convention.

Such things are not acceptable in democratic countries. Bypassing parliament means overriding the norms of democracy. Parliament was rightly concerned over the responsibility of the suppliers and debated for days to ensure that they would not run away from their moral and legal obligations to protect the public. A reluctant Manmohan Singh had to give in because of pressure from practically all parties in the opposition.

They too were keen to get cheap nuclear power, but they had had a bitter experience from what happened in Bhopal in 1984. An American company had installed an outdated gas plant which leaked to kill some 3000 people and maimed another 8,000. The environment had become so poisonous that hundreds of others living there have perished since the tragedy. Till today it is not known why the American company, Union Carbide, was let off lightly and why its chairman was flown in a state plane to Delhi safely, en route to America. Former Union Minister Arjun Singh was then the chief minister and Rajiv Gandhi the Prime Minister.

Parliament has learned the lesson that if the responsibility of suppliers is not spelt out, many Bhopals could happen. Sadly, Manmohan Singh has undone by signing the convention what parliament has institutionalised by law. That the two houses will see the debate revived about the suppliers’ liability is of little satisfaction because the harm done through the convention cannot be undone. It is an international convention which, I believe, cannot be overruled by domestic legislation.

I am surprised that neither the BJP, nor the Left, has made an issue of the convention. In fact, I have not seen much of criticism either. The media too has kept quiet. Maybe, both the opposition and the media have not yet realised the repercussions of the convention which ensures that the suppliers will now have a limited liability in the event of a Bhopal-style nuclear accident.

Could New Delhi have paid the price? The story circulating is that President Obama would push India’s case to be included as a member of the elite nuclear weapons club comprising the US, China, Great Britain, France and Russia. This is said to be a stepping stone to becoming a permanent member with veto rights at the equally elite United Nations Security Council. Moreover, this status will open India’s access to advanced and controlled technologies, as well as the flow of advanced military civilian and dual use technologies that are currently not available to India.

As I look back, I come to the conclusion that India’s entire nuclear energy programme is a cloak and dagger story. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who asked Homi Bhabha to initiate the nuclear energy programme, may not have had the bomb in view, but he definitely had the glory of authorising the infrastructure to preserve our options.

The truth of when we decided to go for the bomb is in all likelihood contained within the Bhabha papers that are currently ‘preserved’ within the confines of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Trombay. I have tried to have access to those papers, but have drawn a blank. I believe only a select few have been allowed to look at them. They include the official archivist at BARC, Indira Chowdhury, who has written an uncritical, glowing biography of Bhhabha.

It is ironical that the clearance of colossal nuclear energy plans coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which has championed the cause of hundreds of thousands of displaced tribals facing destruction with the completion of the Sardar Sarovar dam project. The major point of contrast, of course, is on the question of land. For the government is offering the guaranteed, subsides availability of land to international and domestic investors, even as the fertile land of tribals and farmers face imminent submergence.

That the “damning” of Narmada—with 30 big and about 3000 small dams planned to be built across the river—is a tragedy admitted even by Union Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh. “I am not anti-dam wallah,” Ramesh said. “But the fact remains that the Narmada project, one of the best planned projects in the world, has been one of the worst implemented,” he said. “I have to say that we have betrayed the people in the case of the Narmada project.”

A total of 243,787.558 hectares of land has been allotted to industries under the various MoUs signed. Out of this, 49,704.81 hectares is government land, 12,487.719 hectares is forest land and the remaining 194,082.748 hectares is agricultural land acquired by industries. Compared to this, the total amount of land needed to rehabilitate those displaced by the Narmada dam projects, according to Medha Patkar, leading the anti-dam agitation, is only 61,000 hectares.

But then the Narmada leaders do not have the clout that the American nuclear plant suppliers have. Manmohan Singh has even bypassed parliament to make it possible for them to come to India. But he has not, even after giving a promise, done anything to relocate thousands who have been driven out of their homes and hearths to enable the dam to come up.

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