Bharatiya Janata Party General Secretary Arun Jaitley talks to Aditi Phadnis about the party's differences with the government
The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill has elicited a thumbs down from your party. What's the problem with the Bill?
The Bill raises a presumption against the government that it has been brought under external pressure. The manner in which the Bill is structured and the manner in which the government is trying to devise post-facto justifications only strengthens suspicions.
There are some questions the government must answer upfront: Will the Bill allow foreign operators to run nuclear reactors? If the answer is 'no', as the government says, and only 100 per cent Indian public sector units (PSUs) are going to operate these nuclear power plants, what is the need for a Bill with a three-phase direct operator liability, especially when Phase-I is going to be operated only by PSUs that are 100 per cent government-owned?
If all the money to run nuclear power plants is going to come from the Consolidated Fund of India, why do you need a liability law? You can create liability through an executive order.
The structure of the Bill suggests the three-phase liability will begin with PSUs as operators and gradually include foreign operators.
So you are opposed to foreign operators?
The government must tell us clearly what it wants to do. Let me explain. In case of a nuclear accident, an Indian PSU's liability will be paid by the Indian government. No Indian can object to this.
The objection arises only if a foreigner causes an accident and an Indian has to pay. You will get Parliament to pass a Bill structured around a PSU monopoly and then open it to foreign operators. I am yet to hear a satisfactory reply to this argument.
Now, my second difference with this Bill. This liability is a no-fault liability. We are told it is in addition to a negligence liability on which civil suits can be filed. Assuming this is correct, the following problem arises: Is it the victim's problem whether the nuclear accident has taken place because of the operator's negligence or some other reason? Shouldn't the nuclear liability law should cover the damage, no matter whose fault it is?
Shouldn't the law say that the fact that nuclear damage has taken place speaks for itself? Is it necessary to prove whose negligence led to it? Leakage itself is proof of negligence. Frankly, in nuclear accidents arising from the plant, equity requires that the distinction between leakage because of negligence or otherwise be obliterated. The plant is under your (the government's) control. Sabotage, acts of terror, etc, are already excluded. Under the present structure of the Bill, you want to push the victim of a nuclear accident to litigation in civil suits that will go on till the cows come home. Can you imagine the multiplicity of litigation?
This is a foolish law.
There is a phrase in law: Res ipsa locator (facts speak for themselves). A nuclear leak speaks for itself. So, what you're doing under the current Bill is: You're telling the victim, we will pay you a minimum amount, and if you want more, you file other cases.
From the point of view of the victim, this is an immoral legislation.
There is a plausible understanding of this law that if you create a limit on liability and a special machinery for determining liability, you can't seek clarifications outside that forum. If that is the case, why draft an ambiguous law?
At this point, victims of nuclear accidents are people of India and the compensator is the taxpayer of India.
But surely the government must have known your reservations about the law?
The government has made one mistake. It has only 208 seats but its arrogance is sky high. It snubbed its erstwhile allies, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and cut down to size others like Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee. After the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, the Left parties are already feeling back-stabbed. So, the government is suffering from a credibility gap.
Every time the government is caught on the back foot, the Opposition's unity strengthens. The unity that you see in the House is not because of some pre-determined plan. It is the natural consequence of and a reaction against the Congress' behaviour and some unacceptable policies. If the united opposition walked out during the Budget speech of the finance minister, it was not a result of a pre-planned strategy. The decision was taken at that moment.
So, how is this going to play out for the rest of the session when Parliament reconvenes after recess?
Until the government doesn't do larger consensus-building, it will be difficult for it to get the work done. The women's reservation Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha because the strength of the Opposition, the NDA and the Left, was more than the Treasury benches. I believe we represented more votes than the government side. But this isn't going to work every day. Moves like the tactlessness of the marshals and lifting MPs and throwing them out of Parliament ... we can't stand by and watch such a thing.
Governance can't be partisan and arrogant. There has to be consensus-building with humility.
This means that you will block even reforms that are socially and economically progressive? What about the Foreign Universities Bill and financial sector legislation?
We are a responsible opposition. There will be no opposition for the sake of opposition. As for the Bills, the government wants to bring, well, we haven't been told what the content of these Bills is. How can we react to the foreign universities Bill without knowing what is in it? For all I know, some from the other side might join us in opposing some of these legislation.
So you are not going to bring cut motions on the Budget that could have the effect of bringing the government down?
Cut motions are a part of legitimate Parliamentary tactic. They cannot be dubbed challenges for the government. If the government finds even this a challenge, well, what can I say?