[Editorial] The Indian Antarctic Bill 2022

Background:

  • In 1956, India became the 1st country to request for the item ‘The Question of Antarctica’ to be listed on the 11th UN General Assembly. The objective was to ensure that the continent’s vast expanse and resources are used only for peaceful purposes and for general welfare.
  • Unfortunately, India didn’t press the issue any further as the world’s attention was caught up with crises in Suez and Hungary. There was also resistance to the matter from certain countries like Chile and Argentina.
  • On December 1959, 12 countries who claimed to have direct stake in the polar continent signed the Antarctica Treaty in Washington DC. Notably, India wasn’t invited/ involved in the discussions. Despite criticism from other countries, the treaty members continued to work on the continent’s development among themselves.
  • In January 1982, Operation Gangotri, India’s 1st Antarctic expedition reached its destination. This operation, initiated in 1980, was planned and undertaken in a discrete manner. In this period, the Indian government had also established a separate Department of Ocean Development.
  • The success of this operation had significance in that India, despite its exclusion from the Antarctic Treaty, became the 1st Asian country to have a presence in Antarctica. The West’s reaction to the news can be gauged from how the British magazine New Scientist reported the expedition under the headline ‘Indians quietly invade Antarctica’.
  • In December 1982, India’s 2nd expedition landed in Antarctica. With it, India successfully completed 2 expeditions within a span of 11 months.
  • Following this, India became party to the Antarctic Treaty in 1983. China followed India in 1985. Currently, the treaty has 46 members.
  • In 1984, India’s 1st Antarctic team started wintering in the continent from March 1984. In the same year, the Dakshin Gangotri, an unmanned research base, was set up.
  • Since then, India has established 2 more research stations- Maitri in 1988 and Bharati in 2012. Some 40 expeditions have been undertaken over the years.

What are the highlights of the Bill?

  • The Indian Antarctic Bill, 2022, was passed recently in the parliament. It gives a detailed legal framework for India’s activities in the polar continent- consistent with its treaty obligations.

Objectives:

  • It seeks to give effect to:
    • The Antarctic Treaty
    • The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources
    • The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty
  • The Bill seeks to protect the environment and regulate activities in the region.

Applicability:

  • The Bill’s provisions apply to any person, vessel or aircraft– part of an Indian Antarctic expedition.
  • The term ‘Antarctica’ in the Bill refers to
    • The continent, including its ice shelves and the continental shelf near it
    • All the islands, their ice shelves, seas and air spacesouth of 60°S

Key Provisions:

  • The central government is to establish a ‘Committee on Antarctic Governance and Environmental Protection’:
    • It will be chaired by Secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences.
    • It will have 10 members, not below joint secretary rank, nominated from various ministries (defence, external affairs, etc.), National Center for Polar and Ocean Research, National Security Council Secretariat, etc.
    • It will also have 2 experts on Antarctic environment and geo-politics. They are to be nominated by the center.
    • Its functions include:
      • Granting permits for activities in the Antarctic region
      • Implementing provisions of relevant international laws and also ensuring their compliance for environmental protection
      • Obtaining and reviewing information from the countries that are party to the Treaty, Convention and the Protocol
      • Negotiating charges with other parties for various activities in the region
  • A permit would be required from the Committee or another party to the Protocol for various activities in the region, such as:
    • An Indian expedition to enter/ remain in the continent
    • An individual to enter/ stay in an Indian station in the continent
    • A vessel/ aircraft, registered in India, to enter/ stay in the continent
    • A person/ vessel to drill/ dredge/ excavate/ collect samples of mineral resources from the continent
    • Those that may harm the native species
    • Waste disposal
  • The applicant is to undertake an EIA of the proposed activities before the Committee can grant permit. This permit would not be granted unless a waste management plan has been formulated for the expedition.
  • The Bill prohibits certain activities:
    • Nuclear explosions and disposal of radioactive wastes
    • Introduction of non-sterile soil
    • Discharge of wastes, plastics and other harmful substances into the sea
  • The central government may notify Sessions Court(s) as the designated court to try offences under the Bill. The government would also specify the court’s jurisdiction in trying these cases.
  • The Bill provides for imprisonment and fines as punitive measures for contravention of its provisions. For instance, conducting a nuclear explosion in the continent is punishable with a 20 year prison term (may extend to life imprisonment) and a minimum fine of 50 crore INR. 

Why is it significant?

  • Though the Bill is largely administrative in nature, it is a milestone with respect to our engagement with Antarctica.
  • The Bill comes after the notification of India’s Arctic Policy, earlier this year- yet another step in increasing our presence in the polar region.
  • Apart from the geopolitical and strategic considerations, India is also drawn to the continent for its potential in improving the understanding of the Indian Ocean, the monsoon phenomenon, life in ice-bound ecosystems and marine biodiversity.

What are the criticism?

  • The Bill has faced criticism for its provisioning punishment of even foreign nationals in the Antarctic. Critics have pointed out the strangeness of punishing foreigners under Indian law for their activities in a foreign land.
  • The government argued that the Antarctic Treaty’s main objective is to prevent military activities and other misuse of the continent. It also calls for prevention of mining and other illegal activities in the sensitive Antarctic ecosystem.
  • However, India’s experience with the Enrica Lexie case– which involved the killing of 2 Indian fishermen by Italian marines in 2012– is an indicator of how things could turn out. The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which came 8 years later, accepted Italy’s jurisdictional claim over the marines’ trials- a major setback for India.
  • If this could happen in a case that took place so close to India (off Kerala coast), the extension of Indian courts’ jurisdiction to such a faraway territory as Antarctica is bound to face a lot of challenges.

What is the way ahead?

  • The stated objectives behind the Antarctic Bill is appreciable, even though there are doubts being cast on the applicability of Indian courts’ jurisdiction in such a faraway place.
  • After the passing of this Bill, the next step in India’s engagement with the Antarctic region is the issue of polar research vessel. Till now, India has been chartering research vessels from Russia and Norway. Of late, even chartering these vessels has been presenting several difficulties.
  • Meanwhile, China has progressed ahead to have 2 vessels of its own.
  • Acquiring a research vessel on permanent basis is a necessity. In October 2014, the Union Cabinet decided to get India its own research vessel with ice-breaking capabilities and equipped with advanced technologies. However, this plan still remains unimplemented.
  • If India can acquire fighter jets from abroad, even giving a go-by to the flagship Make-in-India policy, it can also acquire a research vessel in the same manner. Possessing a vessel also acquire importance given India’s increasing involvement in the Arctic– a region that is quickly opening up.
  • Another necessary step is the revamping of the old Maitri station.

Conclusion:

The Indian Antarctic Bill is a milestone in India’s engagement with the Antarctic region. Though it is mainly administrative, it is a necessary step in cementing India’s seat at the international forum discussing the regulation of the Antarctic region.

Practice Question for Mains:

What are the key highlights of the Indian Antarctic Bill 2022? What is its significance in India’s history with the continent at the South Pole? (250 words)

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