India and the Melting Arctic

31 Jan, 2013    ·   3804

Vijay Sakhuja analyses emerging Indian interests in the Arctic vis-a-vis its aspirations to gain permanent observer status in the Arctic Council 

After an extensive overhaul and modernisation spanning over two years at the Zvezdochka shipyard, Sindhurakshak, an Indian diesel-electric submarine of Russian origin, was handed over to the Indian navy on 26 January 2013. Three days later, the submarine sailed for India and was escorted by two icebreakers through the frozen White Sea. In the past, the Zvezdochka shipyard has undertaken the modernisation of four Indian submarines but the Sindhurakshak is the first Indian vessel to sail back home though the Arctic. Perhaps what merits attention is that the submarine was refitted in Severodvinsk in north-west Russia where the INS Vikramaditya (formerly Gorshkov) is currently undergoing final repairs and sea trials in the White Sea. These are indeed interesting experiences for the crew of the submarine and the aircraft carrier to develop some kind of Arctic naval experience. 

The Arctic: India’s Interests

Although the above events are purely a coincidence and not mandated by the government, India’s interest in the Arctic is purely for scientific research which began in 1981 with its Antarctic programme. Subsequently, India set up the National Centre for Antarctic & Ocean Research (NCAOR) at Goa, established three permanent research stations in Antarctica, and has undertaken 25 polar expeditions. There are 14 national research institutions that support India’s polar research programme and in May 2011, the Indian government approved the acquisition of an ice-class research vessel.

The scientific research successes in the Antarctic encouraged India to look at the Arctic region. In 2007 it established ‘Himadri’ at Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen, Norway and initiated projects dealing with atmospheric science, microbiology and glaciology. India’s engagement in the Arctic is also based on the ‘Treaty concerning the Archipelago of Spitsbergen’ or the ‘Svalbard Treaty’ which it signed on February 9, 1920. At that time India was under the colonial rule and the treaty was signed on behalf of the Emperor of India. 

Besides scientific studies, India is expanding its interest in the field of resources and this shift can be attributed to the evolving geo-economic shift to the North pivoting on oil and gas, mining and fishing. Indian investments in the Arctic are in joint ventures by ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) with Russian partners which offer an opportunity to invest in cold-climate / deep-sea oil and gas and metal extracting ventures similar to Sakhalin in East Russia. The Indian steel giant Tata is developing iron ore mines in Quebec and Newfoundland & Labrador in Canada. 

The Northern Shipping Route (NSR) is emerging as an alternative to the traditional sea route through the Indian Ocean and India could explore the possibility of using the NSR for transporting energy and mineral resources from the Arctic region. The Indian Minister of Defence has observed that, “possible melting of the polar ice caps will have tectonic consequences to our understanding of what maritime domains constitute ‘navigable’ oceans of the world. Specific to Asia and the IOR – there may be a need to re-assess concepts like choke points and critical sea lines of communication’. 

India is keen to participate as a permanent observer in the Arctic Council, a grouping of Arctic states (Canada, the USA, Russia, Norway, Denmark (with Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Sweden and Iceland), to broaden its understanding of the dynamics of the region. China, EU, Japan, Italy, India, Republic of Korea, Singapore and few other organisations are awaiting the decision of the Council on their application for a permanent observer in the Arctic Council. 

In May 2013, the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting will be held in Kiruna, Sweden. The most important issue before the Council will be of granting permanent observer status to the new aspirants. This will be a big decision and will shape the future course of the politics in the Arctic region. Some Arctic Council members believe that the Arctic Council should not be an ‘exclusive club’ and other stakeholders must be included. Also, in May 2013, Sweden will hand over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council to Canada for two years. 
China, Japan and Republic of Korea have invested huge political and diplomatic capital, offered economic sops, and also assured the Arctic littorals that their interest in the Arctic is purely scientific in nature. These countries are also interested in the resources (living and non-living) and routes in the Arctic region. Besides, they have enormous shipbuilding capabilities to support the growing demand of ice-class ships. 
India too has accrued enormous knowledge capital in polar sciences and can offer its Antarctica experience and contribute to the understanding of climate induced changes underway in the Arctic. India has been engaging the Arctic Council members and the Indian High commissioner to Canada, Admiral Nirmal Verma, has pointed out that New Delhi can “bring a lot of strength [science] to bear” in the Arctic.