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Probe before you deal with US firm

A new chapter in the scurrilous saga of how the UPA government is pushing to dilute the nuclear liability bill has now opened up, revealing the murky negotiations that have been underway for years to remove legal hurdles for a US company so that it can sell its nuclear reactor equipments to India at escalated prices. Not only has the UPA government been bending backwards to remove or render toothless the section 17 of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Disaster Act, that would hold the supplier responsible in case of a nuclear accident, of course only if it is proven that the defect lay in the equipment from the supplier side, it has also been working towards signing a ‘preliminary contract’ with the US firm Westinghouse Electric Company (WEC), which has a tainted history in the first place. As the report, first brought in public light by this newspaper, indicates, another company of the Westinghouse group – Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corporation (WABTEC) – has been allegedly making huge illegal payments to bribe Indian officials, and had been informed about the firm’s rampant malpractices by none other than the US authorities themselves. In a US report on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and Anti-corruption Enforcement for the second half of 2008 and early months of 2009, allegations of kickbacks against a number of US firms, amongst which WABTEC featured prominently, were leveled and a CBI investigation was duly started. Alarmingly enough, the investigation on the Indian side wasn’t allowed to carry on and, in fact, is now in the process of being closed down before arriving at any conclusion. To think that the government is hell bent on easing the entry of American companies that have a history of being under the scanner of US authorities themselves and had been probed for bribery in the past, speaks volumes on the kind and range of kickbacks that have been possibly exchanged to facilitate a potential deal as shady as the present one nuclear liability.         

The latest revelations clearly point towards a longstanding pattern that has been eating away the administrative core of this country. Given that the government is working on a proposal for the Indian nuclear operator, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), to sign a preliminary contract with WEC, to buy six 1,000-MW nuclear reactors at a cost of USD 15.16 million for a power plant to be set up at Chayya-Mithivirdi in Gujarat, and the fact that the crucial clause in the nuclear liability bill is under attack from our own government, it is only logical that the loophole in the armour of the civil liability act, itself an insufficient and hardly full-proof protection against possible and criminally-liable neglect on the part of the foreign suppliers, is being created to ease the entry of these US companies, whose market value is questionable, who can have the financial and political muscle to flex their way into the Indian nuclear energy sector. Moreover, this is hardly a novel phenomenon, since India has a formidable history in dealing with companies which have a proven track record of indulging in bribes and kickbacks to enable overpriced and faulty defence-related products, be it VVIP choppers or ultra-sensitive nuclear reactors. As in the case of AgustaWestland, especially the British subsidiary Westland, of whose notoriety the Indian government had been more than aware, the current, totally undeserved (mis)allowance that is being given to Westinghouse should be thoroughly probed before any nuclear deal is signed or the act is amended.      

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