There have been any number of instances in recent years when Parliament has passed Bills without any debate. But the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill was the most keenly contested and carefully debated/negotiated Bills in recent times...
In March this year during the budget session of Parliament, the government wanted to introduce the Bill. As part of parliamentary practice, any Bill slated for introduction in Parliament is usually circulated to MPs a couple of days in advance. This is supposed to give some time to MPs to scrutinise the Bill. Based on the version circulated, the opposition parties had decided to oppose the very introduction of the Bill. Sensing this, the government decided to put the introduction on hold, at least temporarily. And then, the Bill was introduced amid a lot of chaos on the last day of the budget session of Parliament.
As with most Bills, within a week of introduction, this was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee for detailed examination. Within three months, the Committee had 14 sittings in quick succession and invited a wide range of experts to get their inputs, including 20 NGOs. But just as the Committee finalised its recommendations, there was a major controversy over the word ‘and’'. It was argued that this single word could change whether the liability will be borne by the owners of the company, or be shared by the provider of nuclear power plants.
Then a series of negotiations between the government and opposition parties on the exact wording in the Bill finally ensured that there was broad acceptance of the provisions of the Bill. The debate on the floor of Lok Sabha on this Bill was informed and passionate, before the Bill was put to voice vote. It will now have to be passed in Rajya Sabha and then go to the President for assent. The Bill will come into effect once it is notified in the gazette.
There are still many important issues that one can argue over. But the process in which the Bill went through the system is what parliamentary tradition is supposed to be. Although we don’t see this as often as we should, this is what our legislators are expected to do on every issue - closely scrutinise, bring the government to respond to their questions, and make the changes that in their collective wisdom is serving the national interest.