by Sahana Ghosh and Mayank Aggarwal on 22 January 2021
- The Indian government has released a draft Arctic policy that focuses on enhancing India’s engagement with the region, including with a focus on research and resources.
- The draft policy discusses the importance of understanding the impact of climate change in the Arctic region and its connection with India’s monsoon, which is crucial for its economy.
- India also proposes to focus on vast resources of the Arctic region including hydrocarbons, minerals and renewable power to ensure its energy security.
- The policy is cautious in framing its involvement in the Arctic as “common heritage of mankind” but it’s priorities are similar to that of other non-Arctic states.
India has been invested in the Arctic region for years and to secure its share of the pie that the region offers in terms of research and resources, including minerals and hydrocarbons, the Indian government has now unveiled a draft Arctic policy. It envisages India’s engagement in the Arctic region for climate research, environmental monitoring, maritime cooperation and energy security.
The policy was put online earlier this month and comments have been sought on it by January 26.
The Arctic region comprises the Arctic Ocean and parts of countries such as Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia, USA (Alaska), Finland, Sweden and Iceland. These countries together form the core of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum. The region is home to almost four million inhabitants, of which, about one-tenth are indigenous people.
Though none of India’s territory directly falls in the Arctic region, it is a crucial area as the Arctic influences atmospheric, oceanographic and biogeochemical cycles of the earth’s ecosystem. Due to climate change, the region faces the loss of sea ice, ice caps, and warming of the ocean which in turn impacts the global climate.
India’s Arctic Policy Roadmap For Sustainable Engagement draft rides on five pillars: science and research activities, economic and human development cooperation, transportation and connectivity, governance and international cooperation, and national capacity building.
According to the draft policy, India could be particularly impacted as changes in the Arctic have an effect on water security and sustainability, weather conditions and monsoon patterns, coastal erosion and glacial melting, economic security and critical aspects of national development
The frigid Arctic, which keeps losing ice due to global warming, is one of the batteries feeding the variations in Indian monsoons, over 7,000 kilometres away. Studying the response to warming in the form of melting is quite relevant to India as it provides tools to monitor changes in the Arctic.
The draft spells out goals in India’s Arctic Mission such as to better understand the scientific and climate-related linkages between the Arctic and the Indian monsoons; to harmonise polar research with the third pole (the Himalayas) and to advance the study and understanding of the Arctic within India.
“Changes in the Arctic and global ecosystem, induced by melting Arctic ice, can thus be highly disruptive for India,” noted the draft policy while emphasising that a good monsoon is critical for India’s food security and the wellbeing of its vast rural sector.
India already has a research station in the Arctic, Himadri, for the research work. India received the ‘Observer’ country status in the Arctic Council in 2013 and is one among the 13 countries across the world, including China, to have that position. The status was renewed in 2018.
Anoop Sharad Mahajan, a scientist with the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, an autonomous body under the Indian government’s Ministry of Earth Sciences emphasised that “India is not disconnected with what is happening in the Arctic and, in fact, there is a clear linkage.”
“Rise or decrease in temperature in the Arctic region makes a significant difference to the monsoon and cold waves in India. So, if we are able to study the Arctic region properly and incorporate that in our climate models it can help in improving the accuracy of our climate forecast. The science is very clear that if the model does not include the details of the Arctic region the forecast won’t be accurate,” Mahajan told Mongabay-India.
“Research in the Arctic region is also crucial because it has the fastest-changing climate on the earth right now (due to climate change). So if the changes due to climate change amplify in the region, it would have huge implications for a country like India. Also, India has started focusing on the region – we already have a base, Himadri, in Norway since 2008 and we are planning to expand the Arctic observation work to other regions in the Arctic in the next few years to increase our geographical knowledge of the changes,” he explained.
Race for Arctic’s resources
Former president of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, in a lecture in 2020, had noted that India’s interest in a “faraway place”, the Arctic, is justified because “the future of India, will be, to a large extent, determined by the Arctic and the future of the Arctic will also be determined by what takes place in India and other Asian countries.” Noting that the Arctic is “extraordinarily rich in energy resources and ocean resources”, he had said that “over 20 percent of Russian exports earning now come from the Russian Arctic.”
“And it is yet another reflection of the geopolitical transformation taking place that the Russian government, most recently reconstructed to have a ministry not just of the Arctic, but the combined ministry of the Far East and the Arctic. There are gas pipelines from Russia to Europe but recently an 8,500 kilometres pipeline has been constructed from the Russian Arctic all the way down to Shanghai in China. Apart from oil and natural gas, the Arctic is also very rich in other clean energy renewable resources like hydropower, wind power and others,” he had said.
India’s draft Arctic policy is not oblivious to this fact and perhaps that is why, in addition, to focus on the research in the Arctic region, it focuses on economic and trade opportunities including that related to hydrocarbons.
“The Arctic is the largest unexplored prospective area for hydrocarbons remaining on earth. India’s current investment in Russia is 15 billion USD in oil and gas projects. There are similar opportunities in other Arctic nations as well,” said the policy while noting that the region contains reserves of “mineral deposits – copper, phosphorus, niobium, platinum-group elements and rare earth.”
The Indian government has already announced its intention about its participation in Russia’s major new oil project being developed by the Russian national oil company Rosneft.
“Although these resources are becoming increasingly accessible, surveys need to be conducted to assess their full potential. Environmental and social impacts due to increased human activity also need to be taken into consideration,” the policy said.
It emphasised that renewable energy (hydroelectricity, bioenergy, wind power, solar, geothermal, and ocean energy) and microgrids play a critical role in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions and that “the potential for exploiting renewables to power the Arctic is enormous.”
The draft policy calls for exploration opportunities for responsible exploration of natural resources and minerals from the Arctic and identifying opportunities for investment in Arctic infrastructure in areas such as “offshore exploration/mining, ports, railways and airports.”
It also talks about developing fail-safe seed storage facilities in cryospheric regions, sharing expertise in the management of indigenous and other communities with the Arctic states, encouraging Indian participation in sustainable tourism in the Arctic, and cultural and educational exchanges between the indigenous communities of the glacial regions of the Himalayas and the Arctic.
The draft policy highlighted that ice-free conditions in the Arctic are resulting in the opening of new shipping routes thereby lowering costs and reshaping global trade. It said that India seeks to participate in the environmental monitoring study to evaluate the predicted emissions of ships likely to traverse this route in future.
“The impact on ambient air quality by Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) and Sulphur Oxides (SOx) needs to be assessed to save the pristine Arctic environment from increasing anthropogenic activities,” it said.
India is cautious in its approach for the Arctic region
India’s draft Arctic policy that seeks to “enhance” the country’s level of engagement with the region is cautious in framing its involvement as “common heritage of mankind” but it lacks in value additions, especially in climate change and environment, a section of experts has said.
Lassi Heininen, Professor of Arctic Politics in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Lapland (Finland) and Editor of the Arctic Yearbook 2020, observed that the priorities as listed in the draft appear to be similar to that of other non-Arctic states.
“It’s a trend and even a boom that even more and more non-Arctic states would like to re-identify and re-map themselves related to the Arctic from the point of view of geopolitics and international relations. It’s very typical that states would like to put together economic and human development co-operation although they would like to prioritise the economy,” Heininen told Mongabay-India.
He, however, questioned the inclusion of climate change and the environment under science and research in India’s draft policy when the subjects should have been one of the pillars. “This is a little bit surprising to me because all the decisions on climate change and environment are done in politics. They are not done by the scientific community; they are done by the policymakers.”
A senior government scientist under conditions of anonymity pointed out that the draft policy is narrow in its scope of engagement with other nations who are involved in the Arctic. India’s draft policy though late in its appearance could have created a splash if its priorities were clearer, the scientist said.
“The draft policy is a list of almost everything. I wonder, and am interested in following, what is the added value that India aims to bring onto the table,” questioned Heininen.
A 2020 report produced by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis that examined 56 key policy documents to identify current trends in Arctic governance and geopolitics notes a focus on science and on the Arctic and space; aspects that are also underscored in India’s draft.
India highlights the pursuit of international cooperation and partnerships with all stakeholders in the region and upholds international law and in particular UNCLOS, including the rights and freedoms contained therein, and “support common heritage of humankind” in the deep seabed area in the Arctic.
“They don’t use the term global commons, but it is more or less the same as common heritage; because if you use global commons then you are dealing with state sovereignty of the Arctic states. India has been more careful to use heritage than commons. It has been very cautious,” said Heininen, also a co-author of the 2020 report.
“From the point of view of the scientific community it is a pity that the discourse on global commons, which has been there for a few decades, is defined as a sensitive subject by states, including the Arctic states,” he added.
In terms of implementation, the draft talks of an Action Plan and an implementation and review mechanism based on timelines, prioritisation of activities and allocation of resources. The implementation will involve all stakeholders including academia, the research community, business and industry, it states. However, said Heininen, “Implementation is only the last short paragraph.”
Banner image: India established a research station, Himadri, in Norway in the Arctic region in 2008. Photo by NCPOR/Government of India