India’s bid for observer status in the Arctic Council was successful on Wednesday along with that of five other countries — China, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore — at a meeting in Kiruna, Sweden.
Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, welcomed India’s admission. An MEA spokesperson said India would contribute its scientific expertise, particularly its polar research capabilities, to the work of the Arctic Council to support its objectives.
However, at the level of realpolitik, India will be looking at the opportunities for hydrocarbon exploration offered in the Arctic circle by joining hands with one of the five countries gearing up for the purpose — the U.S., Canada, Norway, Russia and Denmark.
From the point of view of geographical distance, Russia will be the most attractive partner.
But for that to happen, India will have to take a firm political stand on the Lomonosov Ridge and the Mendeleev Ridge which Russia claims are an extension of its continental shelf.
By supporting Moscow’s position, India could get access to the rich deposits and also utilise the North Sea Route.
Officially, India maintained that its approach will be solely scientific. “Unlike China and South Korea which are going for commercial benefit, our interest is purely scientific.
Look at the number of scientists we have sent and the number of articles they have published and you will get an idea about our main interest area,” said a government source.
The rapid melting of Arctic sea ice that reached new lows last September has caused nations to show intense interest in the region in terms of navigation and exploration of its rich natural resources. At the first Arctic Summit in Oslo in March organised by The Economist, though India was not represented, scientists, indigenous communities and environmentalists sounded a note of caution on exploring the region’s undiscovered natural resources. Though India has had a research station there since 2008, China has forged much ahead in navigating the area with a three-month sea voyage in an ice breaker, the first Asian ship to undertake that journey.
China is now eyeing new and shorter sea routes, its Polar Research Institute having already made projections on container traffic and trade.
There were concerns that the Arctic Council not being united in its views on exploring natural resources, it may not be able to manage the environment.
For the roughly 4.5 million inhabitants of the region, climate change is a reality and the thinning ice is making transportation and hunting difficult. The 60,000 Inuits, represented by Aqqaluk Lynge, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council had appealed to countries like India to be more circumspect in their desire to drill for oil or minerals and demanded that the fate of the indigenous people not be jeopardised. Already Greenland had given out over 100 mining leases which was a cause of concern for local people.