NEW DELHI - The U.S.-based multinational Union Carbide got away lightly after causing the world's worst industrial tragedy at Bhopal, but that legacy has come to haunt U.S. corporations seeking to tap India's newly opened market for nuclear power equipment.
On Mar. 15, the government was to have tabled the civil nuclear liability bill, which would cap foreign firms' liability at 450 million U.S. dollars in the event of an accident at a nuclear power plant and nail responsibility on the Indian state operator instead of on the equipment supplier.
But because opposition parties to the right and left of the ruling Congress party were uneasy about such provisions, the government sensed that there was a good chance that the bill would be defeated and decided not to table it.
"There is little chance of the bill being tabled again in the present form," said N D Jayaprakash, who works for the cause of the survivors of the 1984 tragedy in the central Indian city of Bhopal. "The government will have to drastically increase the quantum of compensation to meet international standards."
Jayaprakash, a member of the influential non-government organisation Delhi Science Forum, told IPS: ‘'However you want to look at it, the Bhopal case has come to be a major reference point for American corporations, including nuclear suppliers that now want to do business with India.''
India concluded the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation deal in 2008, ending decades of technology sanctions imposed on India for carrying out nuclear tests. Since then, U.S. companies such as General Electric and Westinghouse have been jockeying to get a piece of a market worth tens of billions of dollars.
But as Jayaprakash pointed out, the nuclear business is not adequately underwritten by insurance companies. This puts U.S. nuclear suppliers at a serious disadvantage, especially when compared to state-owned players from countries like France and Russia.
This has led critics to claim that the government is tabling the civil nuclear liability bill purely to accommodate U.S. companies.
"The government is trying to ramrod the bill through Parliament to please the United States," said Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M) and an implacable foe of the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement.
Leftist opposition to the Indo-U.S. deal almost brought down a previous government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2004-2009). When Singh and the Congress party won a second five-year term of office in 2009 with increased strength in Parliament, it was seen as a sign of popular support for the deal.
According to Karat, the bill had the specific objective of easing the way for the purchase of 10,000-megawatt reactors made by U.S. companies.
"The government is aware of the difficult and protracted process to get 470 million dollars as compensation from Union Carbide, which is one-fifth of the amount required to look after the health of those affected by the Bhopal gas leak and take care of the environmental damage it left behind,'' Karat said.
An estimated 8,000 people died when Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal spewed deadly cyanide gas on the night of Dec. 24, 1984. Tens of thousands of others who were maimed were largely left to fend for themselves or paid inadequate compensation.
In 1999, Bhopal survivors filed a class action suit in U.S. courts against Union Carbide, asking that the company be held responsible for violations of international human rights law and for the cleanup of environmental contamination in Bhopal.
The case is regarded as a test of international corporate liability where corporations use the laws of one nation to evade responsibility in another.
However, under the proposed nuclear liability bill, a nuclear equipment supplier will be immune from any victim-initiated civil suit or criminal proceedings in an Indian court or in the home country.
Karat said a nuclear accident could be far more devastating than what happened at Bhopal. He suggested that before tabling the bill, the government should send a group of parliamentarians to Hiroshima and Nagasaki cities in Japan, which were hit by U.S. atomic bombs in 1945, to see for themselves the lasting genetic damage that nuclear radiation can cause.
For its part, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has demanded parity with liability provisions under the Price-Anderson Nuclear Indemnities Act in the United States. Under this law, the first 10 billion dollars in compensation is funded by industry and amounts beyond that are covered by the federal government.
‘'This is 23 times more than what the proposed Indian bill offers. The life of an Indian cannot be cheaper than that of an American,'' said BJP leader Yashwant Sinha.
India is not a signatory to the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) for Nuclear Damage, which as adopted in 1997 and seeks to provide complete protection for nuclear equipment suppliers. But the CSC has so far been ratified by just four countries - the United States, Argentina, Morocco and Romania.
Devised by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the CSC comes into force after at least five countries with a minimum installed nuclear capacity of 400,000 megawatts ratify it.
Supporters of the bill say that modified or not, the legislation is necessary because the Indian Atomic Energy Act of 1962 has no provision for liability or compensation in the event of a nuclear accident even though India operates 18 nuclear power plants.