Parliament has just passed the Indian Antarctic Bill, 2022 albeit raucously in the Rajya Sabha. It is an important step forward in our engagement with the gigantic continent which began way back in February 1956. It was then, at the instance of Jawaharlal Nehru and V.K. Krishna Menon, that India became the first country in the world to request for an item on the agenda of the eleventh United Nations General Assembly entitled “The Question of Antarctica” to ‘ensure that the vast areas and its resources were used entirely for peaceful purposes and for general welfare’.
But India did not press the point further because it got caught up later in the year with the almost simultaneous crises in the Suez and Hungary and also because of resistance from countries like Argentina and Chile. But the Nehru-Menon initiative in which India’s Permanent Representative at the UN Arthur Lall also played an important part did have one very tangible impact. Twelve countries who believed that they had a direct stake in Antarctica started discussions among themselves and on December 1, 1959 the Antarctica Treaty was signed in Washington DC.
Not surprisingly, since its moves at the UN had irked a number of countries including the USSR, India was neither involved nor invited. But in May 1958, India’s Prime Minister had told Parliament: “We are not challenging anybody’s rights there. But it has become important more specifically because of the possible experimentation of atomic weapons and the line, that the matter should be considered by the UN…the fact that Antarctica contains many very important minerals—especially atomic energy minerals—is one of the reasons why this area is attractive to various countries. We thought it would be desirable to have a discussion about this at the UN.”
Subsequently, Antarctica faded from the Indian geopolitical gaze. The Treaty members worked on the development of the continent among themselves, inviting occasional criticism from other countries, including India, who were actually helpless to make any difference.
But the morning of January 9, 1982, transformed the international discourse when news of India’s first Antarctic expedition reaching its destination not only electrified India but stunned the world. Operation Gangotri, as it was christened by the Prime Minister, had been a hush-hush exercise started as soon as Indira Gandhi had returned to power two years earlier. She had appointed noted marine biologist Syed Zahoor Qasim as secretary of the newly-created Department of Environment in April 1981 and three months later had brought into existence a separate Department of Ocean Development.
The Prime Minister was well aware of the political impact a successful Indian expedition would have since India was not a member of the Antarctic Treaty and no other Asian country, including China, had a presence there. Rather tellingly and reflective of the mindset of members of the Treaty, the well-known British science magazine New Scientist, some days later, reported India’s expedition under the headline ‘Indians quietly invade Antarctica’.
Yet, beyond global geopolitics and strategic consideration, there was another impulse compelling a naturalist Prime Minister to back the expedition. Well aware of Antarctica’s mineral wealth, Indira Gandhi was drawn equally—I would venture to suggest even more—to the ecological dimensions of Operation Gangotri: greater knowledge of the Indian Ocean and the monsoons, life in ice-bound regions and marine biodiversity. It was therefore no coincidence that the leader of the expedition was Qasim who had earlier served as the Director of the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa. C.P. Vohra, a member of the successful Indian expedition of 1965 to Mount Everest, was Qasim’s deputy.
A second expedition led by one of India’s top geologists V.K. Raina landed in Antarctica on December 10, 1982. Incidentally, it was Raina who challenged the very intellectually lazy and loose assertion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that Himalayan glaciers would become extinct by 2035. It was his critique that forced the IPCC to revamp the manner in which it carried out peer reviews of climate science literature. Raina’s point was limited to questioning such a precise date of extinction: he was not doubting, nor was the government of the day, the reality of the retreat of the preponderant majority of glaciers in the Himalayas that is having serious environmental impacts.
With two expeditions successfully completed within a span of 11 months, India finally became a member of the Antarctic Treaty in August 1983 and China followed in 1985. Today the Treaty has 46 members and has a Convention on Marine Living Resources and a Protocol on Environmental Protection as well.
More achievements follow
1984 saw two more striking Indian achievements: its first Antarctic team started wintering there from March 1, 1984 and a few months afterwards an unmanned Antarctic research base — named by the Prime Minister a few months before her assassination as Dakshin Gangotri — was established. Since then, India has set up two manned (an inappropriate word since women scientists have also been part of expeditions doing the country proud) research stations in Antarctica — Maitri in 1988 and Bharati in 2012. Forty expeditions to the continent have taken place.
The Bill passed by Parliament has been under discussion in the government for over five years at least. It is largely administrative in nature but nonetheless is a milestone. It provides a detailed legal framework for India’s Antarctic activities that is consistent with its international treaty obligations.
The issue of a polar research vessel, however, still needs to be addressed immediately. So far, India has been chartering such ships from countries like Russia and Norway while China has raced ahead and has two of its own. Of late, chartering has been presenting its own difficulties. A decision was indeed taken by the Union Cabinet in October 2014 for India to have its own research ship with ice-breaking and other advanced technological capabilities but it remains unimplemented. Surely if fighter aircraft could be acquired from abroad giving a go-by to the Make-in-India policy, a research ship could also be so acquired.
The acquisition of a vessel on a permanent basis is a logical next step to the passage of the Bill as also the revamp of the quite old Maitri research station. The polar research vessel will also be required as India expands its association with and involvement in the Arctic as well. Its research station there called Himadri was inaugurated in July 2008 and five years later India got observer status at the eight-country Arctic Council.
Jairam Ramesh is a Member of Parliament & Chairman of the Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment, Forests & Climate Change