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The ‘breakthrough’ in Indo-US nuclear deal will bleed Indians every which way

The taxpayer will be made to pay to cover US companies’ untested technologies and the expensive electricity they generate.

Two recent unrelated events formed a subtle connection in my mind. On 25 January, India and the United States announced a “breakthrough” in negotiations to operationalise the long-stalled nuclear deal. On 26 January, eminent cartoonist R K Laxman, the creator of the much-loved “Common Man”, died. The Indian and American governments, and GE and Toshiba Westinghouse, see the “breakthrough” as cause for celebration. If American corporations are sufficiently convinced to follow through and supply nuclear power plants to India, the common man (and woman) – namely, Indian taxpayers, electricity consumers and communities that host the plants – may well get the wrong end of the stick.

Here’s why. The Indo-US civil nuclear deal was signed by George Bush and Manmohan Singh in 2008. As per the deal, India agreed to separate its civilian and military nuclear activity and open up the civilian part to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return, the US offered to resume full nuclear trade with India, ending its nuclear ostracism.

A thankful India carved out two large chunks of real estate in Mithi Virdi, Gujarat, and Kovvada, Andhra Pradesh, and offered them to two American multinationals to set up nuclear power plants. Toshiba-Westinghouse was given the Gujarat site for building six AP1000 reactors of 1100 MW each. GE-Hitachi plans to set up six units of 1594 MW each at the Kovvada site. Both projects involve untested technologies. In both instances, public sector Nuclear Power Corporation of India will be the operator.

Damages to run into billions

But two thorny issues have held up the export of nuclear technology from the US to India. First, US domestic law requires tracking by US authorities of nuclear supplies made to countries like India that have not ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty. India found the requirement unduly intrusive as it was in addition to International Atomic Energy Agency verification.

Second, the Indian Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Act provides for two-part recourse – through Section 17(b) and Section 46 – against nuclear equipment suppliers if the nuclear plant blows up.

India is not alone in providing such avenues. Japan, Austria, Switzerland and Germany have actually gone one step further and even removed liability caps. This is in line with the realisation that damages arising from nuclear accidents can run into billions of dollars, including compensation, relocation and rehabilitation, environmental remediation and lost trade due to contaminated agricultural and marine produce.

A study released in 2014 by researchers from Ritsumeikan University and Osaka City University said the Fukushima disaster will cost $105 billion or twice the predicted damage in 2011. This figure does not include the cost of decommissioning of reactors or safe disposal of the contaminated material and wastes. The researchers point out that the increased costs would be passed down to taxpayers and electricity ratepayers through increased tariffs. Belarus, which was worst hit by the Chernobyl disaster, has spent at least $235 billion over the last 30 years on relief, rehabilitation and clean-up. That is more than twice the size of the Indian nuclear market that American corporations are hoping to tap into.

Scrapping even limited liability

Indian law – CLNDA – is already weak. But American and Indian private equipment suppliers – like Westinghouse, L&T, JSW Steel and Tata Power – feel it is not weak enough. Section 17(b) of the Indian Act allows the operator to sue equipment suppliers. The Rules to the Act, however, limit supplier liability to Rs 1,500 crore in damages or the value of the contract, whichever is less. Section 46 of the Liability Act potentially exposes suppliers to unlimited tort liability under relevant Indian laws. However, under Section 17, only the operator can sue, and only if such a provision is expressly made in the contract.

Winning the suit is conditional to proving deficiencies in the material or equipment supplied or services rendered. After all this trouble, if the value of the contract with the supplier of the equipment that caused the accident is only Rs 5 lakh, then regardless of the extent of damage caused by that flawed equipment, Rs 5 lakh is all the operator is entitled to get from that supplier. A writ petition challenging the constitutional validity of the Act is pending before the Supreme Court.

The Indian government has indicated that it will do away with even this limited liability.

In a twist of Republic Day irony, Obama and Modi have opted to use backroom deals and executive discretion to bypass the spirit and intent of their respective legislatures. The US president says he has found a way to exempt supplies to India from US inspections meant to ensure non-proliferation goals. In return, the Indian prime minister has suggested that a publicly funded insurance pool will be set up to indemnify foreign suppliers and cover the liability under Section 17(b). Section 46 is sought to be neutralised through a legal opinion offered by the Attorney General.

Insurance burden on Indians

Declarations by Indian and US negotiators and the cautious optimism of industry players in response to the “breakthrough” make it appear as if only a few minor issues remain to be ironed out. It is made to seem as if once that is done, US multinationals like GE will “bring good things to life” and nothing will stand between 400 million Indians without electricity and their first light bulbs.

India’s nuclear establishment too continues to exude its typical optimism, unfazed by the sorry reality of having installed less than 5000 MW of ill-functioning nuclear capacity in 60 years. An upbeat article in Business Standard cites several establishment experts, including former Nuclear Power Corporation of India chairman S K Jain, who believe that most of the difficulties have been sorted out, and that the Kovvada and Mithi Virdi projects will now gain momentum.

But as things stand, the prospects of getting American nuclear technology to light up Indian homes are dim. The insurance pool arrangement is commercially shaky and the protection offered by the Attorney General’s opinion against Section 46’s tort liability is legally fraught.

Details about the insurance pool are not available yet. But if it is set up, Indian taxpayers will be made to pay to cover risks associated with GE and Westinghouse’s technologies. A Reuters report talks of a kitty of $244 million, with the government-run General Insurance Corporation of India and a few public sector companies contributing one half and the government contributing the other. The Indian taxpayer will have to pay even if the plants do not blow up. If the supplier is asked to contribute to the pooled fund, that increased project and electricity cost would be passed on to Indian consumers. Anyway you cut it, we are screwed.

The Price-Andersen Act in the US also places a similar burden on American taxpayers. Cato Institute, a free-market think tank, estimates that this translates into a subsidy of 2 to 3 US cents (Rs 1.20 to Rs 1.80) per unit of nuclear electricity generated. Another calculation pegs the annual subsidy per American reactor at about $30 million.

More expensive electricity

Financially, solar and wind energy are already becoming more attractive than nuclear. Electricity from these renewable sources cost Rs 8 and Rs 4.5 per unit respectively, according to a report by solar think-tank Bridge to India. Renewables are quicker to erect and are not as politically contentious as nuclear. In contrast, the Mithi Virdi project has run into serious opposition from local residents and farmers. If it is ever built, electricity from the Westinghouse reactors will cost Rs 12 per unit.

Mithi Virdi power is too expensive for most utilities to afford even without the cost implications of a pooled liability fund. What then are we to make of this pursuit of expensive, untested American reactors? Is the government really serious that Rs 12 per unit electricity will light up indigent Indian homes? Or is all this merely an orchestrated pirouette in a more elaborate Indo-US diplomatic choreography? Is this about India’s electricity future, or its aspiration to be included in the club of nuclear big boys?

Answers to these questions aside, the stalled deal, the subsequent negotiations and the dubious “breakthrough” that the media refers to offer several sobering realisations. Both Obama and Modi consider corporations and not the people of Bhopal to be the real victims of the 1984 Bhopal disaster. Both leaders agree that a nuclear disaster is real enough, and that it is a matter of bilateral priority to protect – not communities and the environment – but the operators and suppliers of nuclear equipment in the event of a disaster. As for dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe, the heads of the two great democracies seem to contend that Indians will make do with some compensation – about $480 million – from their own tax moneys.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist and a volunteer with the Chennai Solidarity Group for Koodankulam Struggle.

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The inspiring projects that are changing girls’ education in India today

New ideas to do more for girls’ education from around the country.

In 1848, when Savitribai Phule and her husband Jyotirao Phule began the first school for girls in India, it caused an uproar in Pune. In the mornings, when Savitribai would walk to school, neighbors threw garbage at her in an effort to shame her. She and her husband persevered, and the school that began with just nine girls changed the way the city viewed girls’ education, eventually making Pune the home to many firsts. In 1885, Huzurpaga the first high school for girls was founded there. And in 1916, exactly a hundred years ago, the city saw India’s first university for women - SNDT.

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While we have come a long way with wide support for girl’s education today, actual outcomes have lagged. We looked at some of the most promising schools and projects that address key issues holding girls back through fresh approaches.

Solving the problem of drop outs in cities - Prerna High School

A school near the banks of the river Gomti in Lucknow is carrying out an incredible experiment in girls’ education. Prerna Girls School is a high school for underprivileged girls, many of whom come from local slums and work as domestic help. To enable these girls to fit education within their circumstances, the school operates in the afternoons. When they arrive, each child is given a snack every day as a nutritional intervention and to increase attendance.

What makes this school’s approach unique is its radical syllabus that, besides the usual subjects, also teaches students to recognize and fight gender bias with tools like critical dialogues, drama, storytelling and music. The school also works to gently alter discriminatory mindsets among parents through such activities. The school intervenes and brings in counselling support in cases of child marriage, without getting into an adversarial relationship with the family. After schooling, Prerna provides vocational training and helps students find employment, further encouraging girls to stay in school.

Urvashi Sahni, founder of Prerna High School, says “Teachers must first understand and respect the circumstances students come from and then work actively to keep the girls in school and build their aspirations. The school must provide long-term and comprehensive support.”

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Adapting village schools to overcome rural challenges - Shiksha Karmi Project

Teacher absenteeism is a major obstacle to education in rural areas. In 1987, the state government of Rajasthan started the Shiksha Karmi (education worker) Project to curb drop out rates and bring students back to rural schools.

The project substituted absent professional teachers with a team of two locals. The theory was that a person from the community would have a better understanding of the conditions of local children. The villagers also had a say in the appointments and the volunteers were given intensive training and were subject to periodic reviews. Since the gender of the teacher is a big factor in getting girls to attend schools, female volunteers were recruited despite difficulties.

In addition, the Shiksha Karmis also started Prehar Pathshalas where girls who could not attend regular schools, due to commitments at home, were taught at times convenient for them. According to a report from the National Resource Cell for Decentralized District Planning (NRCDDP), both these initiatives contributed towards increasing retention of girl students. 22,138 girls—around 68% of the students have been able to resume their education because of Prehar Pathshalas. Additionally, to scale the project, 14 Mahila Prashikshan Kendras (Women Training Centres) have been established to train women teachers and increase enrolment of girls in villages.

Breaking stereotypes through sports - Yuwa

Yuwa was founded by Franz Gastler, a social worker, in Jharkhand in 2009. It began as a small scholarship fund for hard-working students at a local government school. Around the same time, a 12-year-old girl asked Franz if he would coach a football team. What started as a basic kick-about has evolved into something significant. More girls began coming to the practices. They began to request daily practices and saved money to buy sports equipment. Eventually the girls in Yuwa began wanting more classes in addition to football, and the Yuwa School was founded in 2015 — a full time, low cost, English-medium all-girls school that is linked to the football program. The football teams provide the necessary social support for girls to stay in school, maintain excellent attendance, and gain the confidence to get ahead.

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Training for the jobs of the future - Indian Girls Code

Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) education is widely seen as critical for emerging jobs, yet stereotypes and other barriers often discourage girls from choosing these subjects. As a result, there is a widening gender gap in STEM fields. For example, an MHRD report shows that only 8.52% of the girls enrolled in higher education were pursuing bachelor degrees in engineering or technology in 2012-13. This was far below the national average of 13.27%.

Deepti Rao Suchindran, a neuroscientist and her sister, Aditi Prasad, who works in Public Policy, felt that this gap needed to be addressed. They started Indian Girls Code, inspired by initiatives like “Girls Who Code” and “Black Girls Code” in the US. It is a free hands-on coding and robotics education program that is inspiring young girls to be innovators in the field of technology by creating real-world applications. It is currently teaching 25 girls, ages 7 to 12, from the Annai Ashram orphanage in Trichy. While the initiative is small today, it has partnered with Ford Motors and Cisco to provide similar programs for girls. Going by global examples, there is great potential to scale. “Girls who Code” has grown from 20 girls in New York to 10,000 girls across America.

Girls from the orphanage learning sequential programming through a Beebot
Girls from the orphanage learning sequential programming through a Beebot

Beyond successful projects and pilots, it’s important to think of interventions for education in a structural and scalable manner. Kiran Bir Sethi’s “Design For Change”, a youth empowerment program in Ahmedabad is a great example. Five years since inception, it now reaches 200,000 students over 30 countries. Students are ingrained with the belief that they can change the world and are encouraged to identify problems in their communities and recommend actionable solutions. Their efforts have ranged from fighting untouchability in a village in Rajasthan to creating awareness among stone mine workers about the hazards of their work.

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The DFC program has gained worldwide recognition winning prestigious awards like the Rockefeller Foundation Innovation Award in 2012. But most importantly it has inspired thousands of girls to take an active role in changing society. Similarly, Prerna Girls School is running a program to train teachers from government schools to widen impact. And many girls from the Yuwa program are becoming leaders of positive change—over 20 Yuwa girls have spoken at TEDx and at universities in India and abroad

Making education accessible and enjoyable for girls is what will take girl child education to the next level in India. And while many organisations and programs are slowly bringing about change, there is still a long way to go. Learning about and supporting these organisations is a good way to shape the conversation regarding girls education in India. Join the conversation here.

This article was produced on behalf of Nestlé by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.

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