A cold draft? Arctic policy needs more global orientation

January 11, 2021 3:00 AM

The Arctic draft policy could have suggested a department that could handle polar affairs independently

Despite several allusions to the Arctic indigenous people, provisioning for social science research has not found favour.Despite several allusions to the Arctic indigenous people, provisioning for social science research has not found favour.

By Sulagna Chattopadhyay

Unprecedented changes in Arctic have heightened global interest to such a paroxysm that India too has formulated a roadmap of engagement. The draft policy, calls for greater involvement with the region. The draft is witness to many firsts-it is the first to address the high-north under the jurisdiction of several nations; it is the first to open India’s international policy for global review; and, a first to have no clear ministerial jurisdiction.

Arctic’s eight states—Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia and the US (Alaska), Finland, Sweden and Iceland—are vulnerable to changing climate. These nations set policy guidelines about their future Arctic interactions and likely developmental goals. However, others outside the Arctic, such as EU, UK, Netherlands, China, Korea and Japan have defined guidelines and, in many instances, dedicated departments and ministries to handle Arctic affairs. The European nations have report-like policy papers, with large sections dedicated to Arctic research, on-board state-owned polar ice-class vessels, well-manned stations in the Arctic and collaborative drilling and exploration work countries have undertaken, indicative of large financial outlays. The policy papers significantly flag security and political concerns, among other goals. Netherlands and Spain also present a polar outlook, more science-oriented in its approach.

On the other hand, China presents a white paper, with numbered sections and a conclusion, serving perhaps as an inspiration for India’s draft policy. While Korea and Japan provide succinct summaries, profiling their intent briefly. Unlike Europe, the document in both Korea and Japan have emanated from the ocean-related scientific ministries.

India’s draft policy draws from Arctic influences on tropical and sub-tropical climate, leveraging Indian monsoon teleconnections with the Arctic as a critical engagement. Greater interest in Arctic science is envisaged to synergise Himalaya centric cryospheric studies too.

Tracing India’s Arctic antecedents to 1920, when it signed the Svalbard Treaty as a British dominion, the draft policy details India’s scientific prowess in the Arctic. Briefly, the draft digresses to the vastly differing international mechanisms of Antarctica before moving back to ensconce India’s scientific achievements since the initiation of the 2007 Arctic programme, considering it to be the base for furthering the five pillars upon which the draft policy rests. These pillars mark India’s Arctic interest, elucidated in separate sections dedicated to science and research, economic and human development cooperation, transportation and connectivity, governance and international cooperation and national capacity building. Interestingly, India’s investment in oil and gas projects, especially in Russia, has not been considered instrumental in shaping the nation’s Arctic interests. Bettering science seems to be India’s prime-most aspiration.

The scientific domain, comprising earth sciences, climate change and environment and space studies, is sought to be enhanced through specific subject domains. The ministry of earth sciences’ dedicated polar outfit, National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) has been mentioned several times. However, it does not seem to have been considered the Arctic pivot, envisaging dedicated roles in the Arctic for the ministry of space and the MoEFCC in tandem. Overall, the document ostensibly seeks to better science and better scientific collaborations and promote prominent representation of the Indian science fraternity in international events.

India’s draft Arctic policy is a valiant effort. Its unwieldiness stems from the accretion of broad and diverse directives, like building seed vaults and a digital economy, renewable and blue economy, etc. Considering India’s four decades of Antarctic science expertise, way beyond its Arctic foray, a polar outlook for the nation that included Himalaya-the third pole, would perhaps have been more apt. Therefore, the draft policy could have suggested the formulation of a department or a body that could handle polar affairs independently. As prevalent among nations with polar programmes, this implementing body constituted within the nation’s ministries of external affairs or sciences would facilitate the Action Plan that has been promised in the draft Arctic policy.

Despite several allusions to the Arctic indigenous people, provisioning for social science research has not found favour. Several nations have outlined clear policies for safeguarding the indigenous population.

India’s Arctic policy needs a more global orientation. International sensibilities towards evolving collaborations in scientific research needed to be incorporated. A case in point is India’s MoU with Canadian High Arctic Research Station—not mentioned in the document.

The draft policy is a much-needed document that marks India’s seriousness and recognises the Arctic’s rising needs. To be a directional instrument capable of holding India’s Arctic engagement decades ahead, it perhaps needs sensitive honing.

The author is president, SaGHAA (Science and Geopolitics of Himalaya, Arctic and Antarctic), a think-tank working on polar issues

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