It took centuries of progress for human civilization to move from ancient Babylon’s “eye for an eye” to medieval Europe’s “vous avez tort” (you are wrong). Man solved his disputes not by clubbing his neighbour to death, but by demanding damages instead.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) doesn’t seem to appreciate the enormity of this progress. It’s considering a piece of legislation that caps civil liability for foreign builders of nuclear reactors at a lowly Rs500 crore. That means that if there’s a nuclear accident at home, Indians can only claim that much in damages—that too, they can’t do so in foreign courts. Such a low level of liability actually ends up acting as an incentive for foreign builders to deliver faulty equipment.
If the law of torts, or legal wrongs, were more active, that itself would be the biggest incentive for foreign builders to protect against accidents. For instance, McDonald’s has never served excessively hot coffee since 1994: A coffee drinker in New Mexico, US, then suffered burns and successfully sued the fast-food chain for $640,000 (the initial jury award was $2.86 million). Just like McDonald’s, Westinghouse in India won’t risk lawsuits arising out of malfunctioning products.
That doesn’t mean there should be no such Bill or liability cap. Most countries running nuclear reactors do cap legal liability through legislation, since it offers a uniform standard for legal redressal later. And such legislation is perhaps needed even more in India where, thanks to opaque regulations, foreign investors need assurances.
What’s needed is a better Bill: Perhaps the UPA, which deferred introducing its original one before Parliament on Monday, realizes that. After all, the original Bill gives torts, against the likes of Westinghouse or GE, almost no shot at redressing grievances.
Then again, India has never given torts much of a shot. One reason is that judges often have a lot of statute, or legislation, to rely on when laying down the law. Much of this statute happens to be criminal code: A wrongdoer is more easily imprisoned instead of being forced to cough up money.
Perhaps judges will resort to criminal law, offering claimants retribution—and not civil law that offers restitution—when there is a nuclear accident. Unwittingly, this sort of retribution would mean a return to Hammurabi’s “eye for an eye”, making India at least go blind.
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