There is a need for policy interest from India as the world embarks towards a greater uncertainly of the unknown.
By Sulagna Chattopadhyay
The Antarctica, distant and cold, used to be a formidable fortress. Not any more. Intense global interest, huge leaps in technology as well as oceanic and atmospheric warming have all led to a new narrative—a narrative where India is yet to include itself.
On December 2-3, 2019, the first ever high-level Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly was organised by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) headed by UK parliamentarian James Gray, at the Westminster, London. Attended by 13 countries and 19 parliamentarians the meeting concluded with a declaration that called for greater action in a number of significant areas. The Antarctica is a continent almost as large as North America, lying at the southern bottom of the globe. Inhabited primarily by penguins, and, more recently, by scientists, this continent is icy, surrounded by Southern Ocean that teems with marine life.
The two-day meeting began with experts from world over presenting current scenarios of climate change in Antarctica to the parliamentarians. Speakers such as Tim Naish, Steven Chown, Birgit Njaastad, Klaus Dodds and Dame Jane Francis built a case for an intensely grim scenario. Global warming, likely to melt a major portion of the continent, will potentially raise sea levels, inundating huge tracts of low lying land, more so in the tropical regions. Experts also pointed out that with the Southern Ocean cold water region warming it is likely to affect the monsoon, which is of primary concern to India. Also, significant is the loss of rare and unmapped marine and land biodiversity, a future source of food, feed, and, perhaps, pharmaceuticals.
The Antarctica was dedicated to science and universal common heritage of mankind through the mechanism of an Antarctic Treaty that was ratified by a mere 12 signatories in 1959. Today, 54 countries have committed themselves to the consensus. Despite a treaty in place, the future of an Antarctica in flux demanding wider debate—or so the experts envisaged when holding the meeting of the parliamentarians. Heralding the beginning of a new world mechanism towards the upkeep of the Antarctic regions, this Assembly called for proactive action at the policy level within each signatory country.
The concerns related to the Antarctica has been changing from the time the first explorers landed upon it. In the initial days, mineral exploration was part of the narrative which later changed to peace and brotherhood in the peak of the cold war, to be later governed by the environment agenda, and, now, swiftly moving onto the threats of plastic pollution. Scientists, time and again, highlighted the need to protect Antarctica and the Southern Ocean from bio-prospecting and fishing. Although it is not an issue of immediate concern to India, as we have a largely unused quota of krill (a small shrimp-like organism, used both for feed and food) awarded to us by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), it is of significant concern to China, which fishes in many of the waters for which protection is being sought. The large Chinese delegation raised two points—first that they need more conclusive research as there are still many unknowns before such a decision can be taken, and, second, that they would be interested to conduct collaborative research projects to ‘find the truth.’ Cheng Lifeng, head, Environment Protection Committee of China in his speech said “there are different voices…how to objectively assess impact of climate change in Antarctica to make decisions…” The scientists assured however, that the scientific community may not know everything but they ‘knew enough’ to call for heightened conservation.
India’s scientific programme to the Antarctic began in 1981 and is currently continuing with full vigour. In fact, on December 4, India flagged off its 39th scientific expedition to the Antarctica comprising a team of 35 bravehearts. Till date, more that 2,000 Indian scientists have worked in these hostile realms—for the cause of bettering future climate projections.
However, despite a vibrant scientific body, India is ill represented at global polar policy and diplomatic fora. India nominating a parliamentarian for the event, and, consequently, cancelling, marks the sorry state of Polar diplomacy. Non-subject personnel from the UK High Commission attended the event leaving India’s concerns unrepresented and unstructured. The lack of interest in polar issues by the nation’s policy people runs through many such allied meetings such the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) or the Biological Diversity of Areas beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ), marking poor understanding of the nation’s interest and the will to negotiate for India at the higher echelons of decisions makers.
It is vitally important for India to comprehend the uncertainty of the lives and livelihoods likely to be affected by the sea-level rise. If at all the global community is hardening its stand towards the exploration and exploitation of the Southern Ocean and the Antarctica, it is imperative for India to critically examine its ramifications. With an unequal rise in sea levels skewed against tropical lands, India needs to lead a number of collaborative polar programmes towards cognisable projections about the futures of tropical countries and coastal cities. India’s stewardship of similar populous tropical nations bereft of a polar programme would be a pragmatic move. Nations with large and vulnerable population, therefore, need to bid for interactions with the Antarctica, different from the current scenario.
The Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly has been mandated to be reconvened bi-annually with the next to be held in Australia or New Zealand in December, 2021. The first ever successful meeting in London, culminating in a signed declaration that pointed towards greater involvement of interested nations and stringent environmental protection. A need for policy interest from India as the world embarks towards a greater uncertainly of the unknown is therefore, an imperative.
(The author is President, SaGHAA (Science and Geopolitics of Himalaya, Arctic and Antarctic), a think tank working on Polar issues)