For the first time, the Indian government released its draft Arctic Policy. This policy document comes in light of the Arctic region becoming increasingly accessible and attracting even non-Arctic states to explore the opportunities presented by the melting ice. In this scenario, there is a need to take a look at the Indo- Arctic relations.
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Why is the Arctic region important?
- The Arctic region comprises of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Canada, Greenland (part of Denmark), Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Russia and Alaska (USA).
- These countries are part of the Arctic Council.
- The Arctic region is home to nearly 4 million people. About 1/10th of this population is indigenous people belonging to 40 different groups.
- The area is rich in energy resources like oil and natural gas– holding some 22% of the unexplored deposits. It also has renewable energy resource potential- hydropower, wind power, etc.
- It has rich mineral deposits containing copper, niobium, phosphorus, platinum group elements and most importantly, rare earth elements (25%– especially in Greenland).
- As a result it has economic importance. Eg: more than 20% of Russian export revenues are from the Russian Arctic region, gas pipelines stretch from Russia to Europe and more recently, to Shanghai in China.
- The Arctic sea route (Northern Sea Route) is expected to open up by 2050. This would cut the travel distance between Europe (specifically Rotterdam) and Japan (Yokohama) by 40%.
- The area is a focal point in the climate change Due to the effect of ‘arctic amplification’, the region is experiencing the fastest changing climate in the world. About 12% of the Arctic is melting per decade.
- The Arctic biodiversity consists of over 21,000 species that are uniquely adapted for the harsh cold climate. This is under threat from the fast changing conditions.
- The Arctic has major influences on atmospheric phenomena, oceanographic cycles and also biogeochemical cycles.
What are India’s interests in the Arctic?
- The Indo- Arctic relations started with the signing of the Svalbard Treaty in 1920. India still has fishing and hunting rights in the Svalbard region as a result of this.
- The first expedition from India to the Arctic in 2007– the year in which the Indian Arctic Research Program was launched.
- India has a research station in the Arctic called Himadri at Svalbard. India’s first underwater observatory in the Arctic, IndARC is at Kongsfjorden.
- India has a centre dedicated for polar research at Goa- National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR). Some 23 other universities are also involved.
- India already has permission from Canada to conduct experiments at their Arctic research station. Other countries like Sweden and Russia are also expected to work closely with India on the research aspect.
- India holds an ‘observer’ status at the Arctic Council.
- Though India doesn’t have any territory in the Arctic region, the region has major implications in various aspects concerning India.
- The changes in Arctic has an impact on India’s weather conditions, especially the rainfall patterns. The Western Disturbance plays a key role in post-monsoon rainfall, thus having a bearing on Kharif season productivity.
- As the Indian agriculture is still largely monsoon dependent, the Arctic has implications for the food security, farmer income, water security and national development.
- The Arctic has a role to play in cold waves and fog conditions in North India via the Arctic Oscillation phenomenon.
- Studying the Arctic for incorporation into climatic models would improve the accuracy of climate forecasts. A lot of economic activities in India (agriculture, fishing, etc.) are dependent on these forecasts. It will also help improve disaster warning systems.
- The glacial melting in the Arctic causes sea level rise Given India’s long coastline with important cities like Mumbai and Kolkata being located close to the sea, a major portion of the coastal population is vulnerable to flooding.
- As the Arctic is one of the last unexplored areas with significant hydrocarbon deposits, many countries including China are vying for a piece of the pie. This has strategic implications for India as the Arctic development is becoming a platform for Russia- China cooperation.
- The Indian government recently announced its intention to participate in the major oil project in Far East Russian Cluster being developed by Rosneft, a national oil company of Russia.
What is the draft Arctic Policy of India?
- The centre released the draft Arctic Policy Roadmap for Sustainable Engagement in January, 2021.
- This is the first time India has opened up its international policy for global review.
- The policy envisages India’s engagement in the Arctic with respect to 5 pillars:
- Science and research activities
- Economic and human development cooperation
- Transportation and connectivity
- Governance and international cooperation
- National capacity building
Some Key Objectives:
- To strengthen efforts to control climate change.
- To develop better understanding of linkages between the Indian monsoons and the Arctic climate.
- To harmonize the research of the Himalayan region (also called the Third Pole) with that of the Arctic.
- To explore for natural resources and minerals in a sustainable manner.
- To develop sustainable tourism
- The Arctic is considered as the ‘common heritage of mankind’.
- It envisages a multi-faceted engagement with the region spanning economic, scientific and diplomatic
- On the research front, the synergies between Arctic studies and Himalayan studies could be harnessed to study the melting rates of the Himalayan glaciers.
- It seeks to study the link between the Arctic and the Indian monsoon patterns.
- It also seeks to characterize sea ice and to study the flora and fauna of the region.
- In light of the current pandemic, it has highlighted the possibility of melting ice releasing previously trapped pathogens. This holds major significance for health security.
- On the economic front, it calls for identification of investment opportunities in ports, railways, airports, mining and offshore explorations.
- Exploring opportunities for responsible and sustainable extraction of natural resources like minerals from the Arctic.
- It highlights the opportunity presented by the Arctic sea routes becoming increasingly ice free i.e. new shipping routes, lower logistics costs, positive implication for international trade, etc. India seeks to take part in environmental monitoring study evaluating the implications of using these sea routes in the future in terms of emissions from shipping.
- Assessment of the impact of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and sulfur (SOx) to protect the pristine Arctic environment from increasing human presence in the region.
- It lays emphasis on microgrids in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions for exploiting renewable energy sources to power the region.
- Encouraging participation in sustainable tourism from India.
- Development of fail-safe seed storage facilities in the Arctic.
- Engaging with indigenous communities in the Arctic by sharing management expertise, cultural and educational exchanges, especially with the indigenous communities of the Himalayan region.
- Developing an action plan and an implementation and review mechanism based on prioritisation of activities, timelines and resource allocation.
- Involvement of all stakeholders– including the academia, industry and the research community, in the implementation process.
What are the concerns and challenges?
- Critics have called the draft document as an ‘all of the above’ policy with contradicting goals. This is because the policy expresses concern regarding climate change and the impact of Arctic anomalies on Indian monsoon while envisioning exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons from the region.
- Drilling for oil in the Arctic is expensive and poses physical challenges. In addition, the oil prices have become volatile in light of the pandemic’s impact on the economy.
- A section of experts say that the policy document lacks in value addition, especially in the aspects of environment and climate change.
- There is a lack of clear ministerial jurisdiction.
- Very few scientific personnel work on Arctic research at the NCPOR.
- There is insufficient focus on the implementation part.
- Connectivity between the Arctic and India is a key challenge. We don’t even have an icebreaker
- Despite the focus on indigenous communities in the Arctic as a connecting point, the policy doesn’t have much provisioning for social science research.
- The draft document has also been criticised as being narrow in its scope of engagement with other state players in the Arctic.
- The Arctic countries are mostly high income economies that have traditionally resisted the introduction of a governing treaty for the Arctic (along the lines of the Antarctic Treaty). For instance, in the Ilulissat Declaration, these countries vowed to block any international legal regime to govern the Arctic.
- They have been criticised as having double standards as they refer to the Antarctic as ‘global commons’, imposing restrictions on oil and gas extraction from the region while claiming sovereignty over vast stretches of the Arctic for enjoying its resources.
- The draft Arctic Policy document has failed to call out this double standards.
- Meanwhile, the Arctic is being disputed among the Arctic Council members with Russia, having 24,000 km of its shoreline in the Arctic and housing 50% of the Arctic population, and the USA contesting the rights over the Northern Sea Route.
- Russia is already developing ports along its Arctic coastline and is planning to charge the ships that pass through this route in the future.
- In addition China is investing heavily in Russian Arctic for exploration, underwater infrastructure etc. It has linked its flagship BRI project to the Arctic via the ‘Polar Silk Route’.
- In 2018, China published a policy white paper in which has very pronounced emphasis on geopolitics. It has even started describing itself as a ‘Near Arctic State’. This may tempt India to enter the geopolitical ring too.
- Many non-Arctic States are re-identifying and re-mapping themselves as having stake in the Arctic from the geopolitical point of view. Most would prioritize their economic interest over other concerns.
- There is a concern that the Arctic could turn into the ‘new South China Sea’ with increasing militarization and competing claims of territory.
What is the way ahead?
- India’s Arctic Policy could be made more impactful, despite its late arrival, if it were to spell out its priorities in a clearer manner.
- Experts have suggested the formulation of a body to independently handle the polar affairs like in case of many nations with polar programs.
- Need to encourage more scientists to take up Arctic studies and focus should be on capacity building. This is especially vital as India’s strongest plank in this policy is the scientific plank.
- Need to build capacity to undertake year-round expeditions to the Arctic as we are currently only capable of expeditions in the summer.
- The ISRO’s efforts in establishing satellite receiving stations in the Antarctic could be emulated in the Arctic to improve digital connectivity– compensating for the physical distance between the regions.
- Projects like the proposed link between Vladivostok and Chennai can be taken forward from its dormant state.
- Need to survey the Arctic resources as they are becoming increasingly accessible, to realise their full potential.
- Simultaneously, the environmental and social impacts of increasing activity in the Arctic must be taken into consideration.
- Need to outline clear policies with regards to safeguarding the interests of the indigenous communities in the Arctic.
- Experts have called for a more globally oriented policy
- Experts have opined that for India to be a serious player in the Arctic, its policy must address the double standards being practiced by the Arctic nations.
- They have even gone ahead to call for reconsideration of the observer status in the Arctic Council and push for an international legal regime governing the Arctic to safeguard the fragile ecosystem.
India’s draft Arctic policy, though one of the later arrivals, is a welcome move spelling out India’s plans regarding one of the last unexplored areas of the world. It is also an assertion of India’s international ambitions. However clarifying priorities and addressing the contradictions between the economic and environmental interests could make it well-rounded.
Practice question for mains
‘The Arctic region has become an arena for power and for competition.’ In light of this statement examine the Draft Arctic Policy of India. (250 words)