Arctic Features in India’s Geoeconomic Schema

The 80-paras long joint statement “Through trust and partnership - to new heights of cooperation” released at the end of the 20 th India-Russia summit in September 2019 identified several areas for expanding bilateral cooperation between the two countries. The document also makes reference to Arctic and notes that India is “watching with interest the development in the Arctic region and is ready to play an important role in the Arctic Council.”.

India’s connection with Arctic dates back to the 1920s through the ‘Treaty concerning the Archipelago of Spitsbergen’ or the ‘Svalbard Treaty’, which included among other countries Great Britain. At that time India was part of the British overseas dominions. Arctic did not feature in New Delhi’s policy discourse in the post independence period due to its priorities on national development. However, encouraged by its scientific research successes in Antarctica, in 2007 it set up a research station ‘Himadri’ at Ny Alesund , Spitsbergen about 1200 km from the North Pole. Subsequently, on May 15, 2013, India was admitted as Observer in the Arctic Council based on its professed commitment to pursue scientific and environmental research activities..

It is encouraging to see Arctic in India’s thinking and comes at a time when the contemporary discourse is focused on three significant issues. First, Arctic sea ice is shrinking rapidly and has attracted international attention particularly in the context of climate change and global warming. Scientists and climate model simulations predict that in case of two degrees C increase in global temperatures, and if carbon dioxide emissions continue at the current rate, the Arctic will be ice-free in next two or three decades. These will potentially affect the Indian Monsoon system and the glaciers in the Himalayas, also referred to as the Third Pole..

The second discourse is about potential resources (oil and gas, metals and minerals) in the Arctic region despite climate related catastrophic predictions. These have so far remained under-explored due to difficult geography, harsh weather conditions as also lack of technology; but such constraints and limitations now appear to have been overcome and several mining and oil and gas companies across the globe are engaged in the region to exploit these resources. New Delhi has so far engaged in oil and gas exploration ventures such as Sakhalin I in East Russia..

The third issue is about the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Russia is developing infrastructure including ice-breakers, ice-class ships, ports, satellite communications, emergency and search and rescue services for the NSR to achieve an annual target cargo flow of 80 million tons by 2024. The NSR would also compress shipping distance between Asia and Europe and vice-versa by at least four thousand nautical miles. A number of Asian countries, China, Japan, Korea and Singapore have made significant headway and drawn plans to use the NSR..

India can be expected to expand investments in oil and gas sector. It has rich experience of cold-climate exploration ventures in East Siberian region. In that context, Russia has played a significant role in helping India build technical expertise and the state owned ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) has been leading the Sakhalin oil projects. After successfully engaging Russian energy giants such as the Gazprom and Rosneft, OVL is now planning to invest in the Vankor oil region which is projected to be connected with the Arctic coast through a new pipeline..

Currently, India does not have a dedicated vessel for polar research or commercial expeditions notwithstanding that a Polar Research Vessel (PRV) was approved nearly a decade ago by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs. Prime Minister Modi recently visited the Zvezda Shipbuilding Complex, the top builder of Arctic vessels and specialist platforms for operations including shipping and oil drilling. He was taken around the shipyard and briefed about the ‘Lider project’ under which the biggest nuclear icebreaker in the world is to be built to ensure shipping operations are kept open year-round though the NSR. India may explore acquisition of a PRV from Russia and overcome high costs of chartering specialist vessels for voyages to Antarctica and the Arctic..

The growth in NSR traffic would require seafarers capable of managing onboard activity. India has enormous human dividend and is in a position to supply skilled and trained human resource for navigation and engineering duties onboard ships operating in the Arctic. Furthermore, Indian mariners are well known for their shipping/technological prowess..

Finally, India has exhibited limited interest in the political and strategic developments in the region, but can proactively engage in the International Arctic Science Council, the Arctic Council, resource development projects, acquire a polar research vessel as also explore training Indian seafarers for NSR duties.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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