People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 36

September 05, 2010



Bartering Away National Interests



THE recently-concluded monsoon session of the parliament was marked by the singular obsession of the UPA-II government to have the civil nuclear liability bill passed in both the houses.  Clearly, this was necessary in  order to present to the US president Barak Obama a domestic Indian legislation that favours nuclear commerce facilitating huge profits to US corporations that are now supply nuclear power reactors  to India.  The real intent of the Indo-US nuclear deal, apart from cementing India’s strategic ties with US imperialism, is now materialised by facilitating huge profits to US corporations who have been virtually unemployed as the USA banned any further generation of nuclear power following an accident on the three mile island more than two decades ago. 


This obsession was reflected in the fact that the only issue on which the prime minister intervened was in the discussion on this bill where he appealed for unanimity in approving it.  In recent times, the prime minister had scheduled foreign visits during the parliamentary sessions.  The country was relieved when he did not have any in this monsoon session.  It was hoped that his continuous presence in the parliament would contribute to providing the much-needed relief for the people.  Yet, he chose not to speak on the more pressing issues before the country and the people.  Such was the preoccupation with this obsession that it resulted in an unprecedented loss of face for the government when it had to defer at least five legislations that were passed by the Lok Sabha but could not be seen through in the Rajya Sabha.


Despite the unprecedented procedure of unanimously adopting a resolution moved by the Chair in both houses, calling upon the government to take all measures to protect the aam admi from the adverse impact of price rise, the PM did not intervene. Likewise, he remained silent in the debates on the alarming situation in Kashmir and on the plight of the Bhopal victims.  That he chose to intervene on the nuclear liability bill, establishes that silence is often more eloquent than words, in expressing the real intentions and priorities of this government. 


That such a legislation was inevitable became clear at the time of sealing of the Indo-US nuclear deal.  India had then assured the USA that it would join the convention  on supplementary compensation for nuclear damage  which explicitly  protect the supplier of nuclear equipment from any liability.  India was, thus, not only providing greater avenues for profits to US corporations but also assures them of not being subject to any liability. The Indian foreign secretary wrote to the US under secretary on September 10, 2008 saying “India also recognises the importance of establishing an adequate nuclear liability regime and it is the intention of the Indian government to take steps to adhere to the convention on supplementary compensation for nuclear damage”.  Then we have an interview on March 10, 2010 of the US secretary of state, who says, “Our interests are to ensure that the bill that is ultimately enacted is complaint with the international standards in this area which is the convention on supplementary compensation. That is our chief interest”.  So the US interest in this bill is very explicit. 


Reacting to such references and charges that the nuclear liability bill was aimed at promoting US interests, the prime minister said in the Lok Sabha that “this is not the first time that such a charge has been made against me.”  Reference was to his 1992 FM budget ushering in neo-liberal reforms which he claims has, today, created “a resurgent and assertive India”.  Two decades later, the impact of this nuclear liability bill would be similar, he claimed. 


`Resurgent India’ indeed! For whom?  52 Indian US dollar billionaires hold a fourth of our country’s GDP today.  On the other hand, official estimates show that 77 per cent of Indians survive on less than Rs 20 a day. While this column has repeatedly drawn attention to such creation of two Indias, the most high profile Congress general secretary has now thus spoken recently in Orissa. 


That the reforms would widen the rich-poor divide was always known.  The then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao in March 1995 admitted: “In the context of the reforms that we have embarked upon presently in our country” required the need to “commit the resources required to realise the rights for the poor”.  Further, “The core issues of poverty eradication and social integration cannot be addressed credibly without adequate resources”, and “the paradigm of our development must necessarily contain an effective component of social justice and harmony”. Thus, within three years, it became clear that the omnipotent `market’ and `reforms’ by themselves will not eliminate poverty. On the contrary, as we see today, the economic disparities have only widened sharply.  This is the reality of the 1992 reforms, two decades later.


More recently, last December, PM Manmohan Singh himself spoke defensively at the conference of the Indian Economic Association on poverty reduction. In an admission of guilt of sorts, he said that poverty “has continued to decline after the economic reforms at least at the same rate as it did before”.  Does this create a “resurgent and an assertive India” for all? 


Clearly, the neo-liberal growth trajectory was and is designed to widen the hiatus between the two Indias, notwithstanding the rhetorical concern for the aam admi.  The `shining’ India’s luminosity is directly proportional to the depravation of `suffering’ India. Likewise, this nuclear liability bill is patently designed to promote nuclear commerce for US corporations and their domestic `add on’s’.  The prime minister has announced the target of generating 40,000 MW of nuclear power. By using the nuclear option, India would be spending way beyond Rs 3 lakh crore plus more than by using the available thermal, hydro or other options. This cost difference, which translates as corporate profits, can build nearly 20,000 fully equipped 100-bed hospitals or 2.5 lakh Navodaya Vidyalayas with full boarding facilities for 100 students.  Super profits for US corporations or true concern for the aam admi – this is the question today. The answer, unfortunately for our people, is in favour of the former.    


However much we may wish that a nuclear accident never happens, when it does, it causes catastrophic damage to human life and property. The question of liability of both the supplier and operator of nuclear power plants in providing compensation, hence, becomes important.  In the context of the plight of the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, due to the absence of adequate liability laws, the union home minister spoke in the Rajya Sabha recently of “a deep sense of guilt that in all these 26 years neither the executive nor parliament appeared to have exercised the vigil and supervision that the situation warranted. And, in a sense, the elected political class of the country let down the victims of Bhopal.”   It is not the `political class’ but the ruling classes in government, where the Congress and BJP find common place, that have let down.  They have, once again, joined, notwithstanding media reports of an alleged deal (UPA government easing pressure of CBI on Narendra Modi in return of BJP’s support) to pass this nuclear liability bill.


The CPI(M) had to counter such guilt free abdication of responsibility by the successive Congress and BJP governments by setting the record straight in the Rajya Sabha.  The Left had been raising this issue all along since 1984.  Unfortunately, for the aam admi, this fell on deaf ears. Similarly, our pleas now to hold the US corporate giant, Dow Chemicals, that acquired Union Carbide liable for damages and for cleaning up the toxic waste that continues to collude  the environment are falling on deaf ears.  The least that the government could have done is to follow president Obama’s example of making the British Petroleum spend billions of US dollars in cleaning up the recent oil spill that it had caused in the Gulf of Mexico. 


Today, the CPI(M) is forewarning the government and the country that the legal structure for adequate liability in the event of a nuclear accident must be ensured, else, a tragedy exponentially worse than Bhopal is waiting to happen.  And, a future home minister, two decades down the line, hopefully does not have to bemoan of inability and abdication as the incumbent HM has done vis-à-vis the Bhopal tragedy.


Many countries in the world have fixed a floor for the amount of liability payable in the case of a nuclear accident.  Instead of this, the current Indian law fixes a ceiling.  In the case of a nuclear accident, a ceiling makes no sense as the amounts of compensation would depend upon the gravity of the accident.  By not heeding to this suggestion and refusing to raise the limits of compensation, the Indian ruling classes are, once again, bartering away people’s interests for corporate profits.  An alternative political trajectory for realising India’s real potential is necessary as the Congress and BJP unequivocally converge on issues of neo-liberal economic reforms and subservience to US imperialism. 


Heed this forewarning, if for nothing else, that, a nuclear accident does not discriminate between the miniscule `resurgent’ India and the overwhelmingly impoverished real India. 


(September 01, 2010)