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Drafting in the dark

Reports suggest that a controversial clause in the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill is actually unnecessary.

Reports suggest that a controversial clause in the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill is actually unnecessary. The Bill,in its current form,puts an upper limit of 300 million special drawing rights (SDR) that must be paid as monetary damages in the event of a nuclear accident. In a country in which compensation for the victims for the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy continues to be discussed 25 years on,this upper limit naturally generated criticism of kowtowing. The government seemed to defend this limit as a pre-condition of the International Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage. If India wanted to be a big player in civil nuclear energy,the argument went,limits to liability was the trade-off. But it now emerges that the international convention which the government is relying on actually sets 300 million SDR as a minimum base,not a maximum ceiling. In other words,the convention aims to protect victims,not curtail their remedies.

Regardless of which state agency is to blame,the inept drafting of the Bill exposes deeper malaises. The first is the lack of public debate and consultation. The Bill seems to have been shrouded in secrecy by the Department of Atomic Energy,with even other ministries — let alone the public — unaware of its intricacies. In fact,many of the bills that the UPA II has passed so far,such as the Women’s Reservation Bill and the Right to Education Act,are monumental. But where was the public consultation that,say,the United States went through during the bitterly contested healthcare reform law? The secrecy with which the government seems determined to carry out legislation — including those this newspaper views as essential — means that drafting errors and bugs will inevitably creep in.

The second flaw is the belief that the UPA-II can ram secretly-drafted legislation through Parliament without taking the opposition into confidence. But deliberation and debate — even when slow and motivated — has the twin advantage of providing legitimacy and vetting for errors. This error will hopefully be corrected. But it is hoped that this clumsy maneuvering shows the folly of law-making in the dark,in solitude.

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First published on: 12-04-2010 at 00:55 IST
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