India: The baniya approach to disaster management - Nuclear Civil Liability Bill
- South Asians Against Nukes - Year 12
19 March 2010
o o o
Baniya and the bomb
by Jawed Naqvi
Dawn, 18 Mar, 2010
India's chief military scientist V.K. Saraswat speaks during a press
conference in New Delhi, India. Saraswat says the country will test a
new long-range nuclear-capable missile, the Agni-V with a range of
5,000 kilometers, within a year. –AP Photo
Nuclear outrage on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was carried out by a people
whose hands were covered with the blood of countless black slaves,
indigenous American tribes and with the internecine carnage of their
own in what they called a civil war. Do Indians and Pakistanis have
the stomach for a galling nuclear war?
Given the bloodletting of Nadir Shah in Delhi and of Emperor Asoka in
Kalinga (before he became Buddhist), not to speak of an almost daily
outrage inflicted by rightwing Hindus and Muslim extremists on each
other and on their own there is a tradition of violence in the region
which, though it may not be of the same shall we say calibre,
resembles the American streak for gory inhumanity.
Z.A. Bhutto’s exhortation to his people to eat grass but make the bomb
and screaming headlines, in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests,
quoting Indian leaders about how their country could wipe out Pakistan
in a nuclear duel indicated a penchant for violent and destructive
nationalism whose roots are more than skin-deep. Pacifists like Martin
Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Abdul Ghaffar Khan have really no
place in their own countries, such are the compulsions of the new
nation-state to be battle-ready with bloodcurdling doctrines of mass
It comes as a surprise then that there is a debate raging in India
about a bill the government wants to introduce in parliament to grant
virtual immunity to foreign suppliers of civil nuclear power units.
The debate centres on a few key issues but the primary objection
raised by the opposition, including the left and the right of the
spectrum, is that the monetary compensation in the event of a nuclear
disaster caused by an act of terrorism, by a natural calamity or by an
accident was 100 times less than the $10bn liability fixed in the US
for a similar contingency. Opposition groups have another bone to
pick: foreign suppliers have been assigned no liability even in doling
out the meagre compensation.
This is the baniya approach to disaster management. Financial
accounting for an unaccounted number of lives at risk from a manmade
disaster with loose or serious change on offer is heartless. In any
case, I am not sure that there is as much as a penny kept as
compensation for similar or worse consequence accruing (a
balance-sheet term!) from an actual nuclear war that both countries
have threatened each other with.
In the eventuality of a war would there be any accountant or claimant
left to follow up on the dole were it on offer? The irony is that the
ghoulish debate about compensation is carried out by those who have
never spared a thought for a nuclear calamity should a war occur.
Parliaments on both sides are stacked with unrelenting nuclear hawks.
It is not that nuclear accidents have not occurred in India but
sometimes dealing with a non-nuclear accident has been a handful.
Twenty-five years have passed since that night of terror and death in
Bhopal, which saw a cloud of deadly gases explode out of a faulty tank
in a pesticide factory and silently spread into the homes of sleeping
people. Although no official count of casualties has ever been done,
estimates based on hospital and rehabilitation records show that about
20,000 people died and about half a million suffered bodily damage,
making it by far the world’s worst industrial disaster ever.
Many who breathed the highly toxic cocktail that night suffered a
horrible death with multiple organ failure. Those who survived have
suffered multiple diseases for 25 years. There too the focus has been
on the quantity and spread of monetary compensation. But successive
comprador governments have found little time to pursue the interests
of Indians. Their leaders have been busy proclaiming the positive
effects on India of colonial rule. Can any leader in India put in a
side request for the extradition of Warren Anderson of the US? He was
the chairman of Union Carbide, responsible for the Bhopal gas leak.
It is hypocritical is it not that India’s opposition and its so many
wise NGOs are talking about compensation for a nuclear accident! But
when did anyone take out a joint opposition or a civil society rally
against nuclear weapons in the land of Gandhi? Far from it; there is
not even the remotest effort by anyone barring perhaps one or two
small NGOs to educate the masses about what lies in store for them.
Let’s pare down the issue to this: which is a likelier risk as a
source of mass annihilation — a deliberate or accidental nuclear war
or a Bhopal-like eventuality at a civil nuclear site?
India flaunts itself as a nuclear power that purports to defend the
interests of a billion plus citizens. Has it tried to do a fraction of
the diligence that a country like the United States had to do to
protect itself from a nuclear attack? Americans spent $45bn during the
Cold War in preparing to absorb, though not thwart, a nuclear strike.
And even here it was meant to protect its leaders and military
capability, not the citizens.
I remember reading a laughable emulation by the Indian authorities a
few years ago, when they advised through newspaper ads that citizens
should pack their windows and doors with impermeable sheets of plastic
and tune in to the radio during a nuclear calamity. The advisory was
unwittingly aimed at those Indians who owned a house in any of the
cities, not for the millions who sleep under the sky come rain, winter
or high summer.
The 9/11 attack spurred the US government to partially carry out its
mothballed nuclear contingency plan. However, the evacuations of
federal government buildings and many private offices in New York,
Washington DC, Chicago and elsewhere created massive traffic jams,
bringing traffic in some areas to a standstill for hours.
Wrote Stephen Schwartz author, and publisher of Bulletin of Atomic
Scientists: “This demonstrated once and for all the utter unreality
and futility of all civil defence plans devised by government
officials, who from the 1950s through the 1980s promoted orderly
citywide evacuations to the countryside as the best means against
Moreover, observed Schwartz: “With so much attention, and money,
devoted to safeguarding government leaders and so little to protecting
the public, would there be anyone or anything left to govern in the
event of a truly catastrophic large-scale attack upon the United
States?” That is the point to ponder in India’s parliament.
Book-keeping for the dead and survivors can be left to the myopic
accountant, the heartless baniya.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
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