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Monday Morning Meeting on “Antarctica: Indian Endeavours in the Icy Continent”

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  • February 19, 2024
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Commandant Manorajan Srivastava, Research Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), spoke on “Antarctica: Indian Endeavours in the Icy Continent” at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 19 February 2024. The session was moderated by Dr. Uttam K. Sinha, Senior Fellow. Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, the Director General of MP-IDSA and scholars of the Institute attended the meeting.

    Executive Summary

    India has long term geo-strategic interests in Antarctica. It has been sending scientific research expeditions continuously since 1981 and has two operational research stations, Maitri and Bharati in Antarctica. India received consultative status in 1983 by joining the Antarctica Treaty. The present scientific engagements however need to be further enhanced. Joint programs and multidisciplinary scientific studies in complex areas such as identification and study of high energy neutrinos originating within our galaxy and beyond, study of sub-glacial lakes and studies related to meteorites need to be encouraged. Exchange visits of Indian scientists to the South Pole and joint studies need to be explored.

    Detailed Report

    Dr. Uttam K. Sinha began the discussion by reflecting upon the intersection of geopolitical and geo physical aspects of international politics with regard to the relevance of Antarctica. He further explained the genesis of the word Antarctica before handing over the floor to Commandant Manoranjan Srivastava.

    Comdt. Srivastava began with the brief physical, geographic and climatic description of the white continent, Antarctica, also called Continent of peace and science. Antarctica, being the fifth largest continent and covering nearly 10% of earth’s land surface, is an important part of the Earth’s ecosystem. It is a reservoir of almost 90% of earth’s freshwater. The fluctuation in climatic conditions in summer and winters is important as it plays a pivotal role in deciding the atmospheric features on the earth. Explaining the physical genesis of Antarctica as a part of Gondwana land, Comdt. Srivastava went ahead to explain the genesis of human conceptualization of the continent. Ancient Greek philosophers were the first to moot the idea of Antarctica. Ant- Artikos meant ‘the land opposite to Artikos’. Captain James Cook was the first navigator to tackle the problem of Antarctica. He crossed Antarctic Circle four times between 1772-1775 which enabled him to make the claim that ‘no man will ever venture further than I have done, and the land which may lie to the south will never be explored.’ The marine wealth which he discovered made voyages imperative in the next century.

    Comdt. Srivastava then moved to an interesting ‘race to the pole’ debate where he covered the expeditions of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott to Antarctica. He mentioned that the diversity of flora and fauna is quite limited in a sense that only 2% of Antarctica is free of ice. He also spoke about the effect of increased footfall of tourists on the wildlife biodiversity of Antarctica. He further explained the importance of ‘Krill’, an important link in the Antarctica food chain web.

    On the issue of territorial claims, he stated that there are seven nations having territorial claims in Antarctica namely, Norway, France, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile. In early 20th century, Britain expanded its footprint in Antarctica in the lure of rich whaling resources. France entered the fray in 1924, followed by Norway. The dispute of territorial claims between Britain, Chile and Argentina has also been slated to reach the International Court of Justice but Argentina and Chile rejected it. The Antarctic Treaty 1959 came into force from 23 June 1961 and all the territorial claims, counter-claims and rights were put in legal cold storage. The short and crisp 14 articles of the Treaty laid to rest all contentious issues. However, challenges emerged due to the oil crisis in 1970s as well as the discovery of oil and minerals in Ross area of Antarctica. Antarctica was then hailed as the new Gulf. The Madrid Protocol of 1991, ratified in 1998 prohibits any mineral exploration from the region for next 50 years taking into consideration environmental concerns.

    Comdt. Srivastava then spoke about Indian endeavours in Antarctica. He stated that India’s entry into the Antarctic Treaty system was in 1983. First the Indian vessel, with 21 member scientific team, left from the shores of Goa in 1981 to reach Antarctica via Mauritius. The three Indian stations in Antarctica are Dakshin Gangotri (1983), Maitri (1988) and Bharati (2012) with Maitri and Bharati being operational as on date. The Indian Antarctic science program consists of earth sciences, biological sciences, glaciology and environmental sciences etc. Joint programs and multidisciplinary scientific studies, studies on sub-glacial lakes, studies related to meteorites however need to be encouraged further.

    Dr. Sinha reflected upon the significance of important personalities like Viceroy Curzon, and also about India’s early engagements in Antarctica.

    The floor was opened for questions and comments. The Director General, Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, in his remarks, complimented the clarity and comprehensiveness of the presentation. Amb Chinoy spoke about the geopolitical contestation among the original seven claimants as well as the Treaty’s mandate that explicitly prohibits any such claims. Amidst the claims and counterclaims by major powers including Russia and the United States, Amb. Chinoy asked about the chances of future friction emanating from the geopolitical contestation in the region. Amb. Chinoy further alluded to the dual use features of the Chinese programs in Antarctica. He also asked about the issue of IUU fishing in the Antarctic waters, and its implications.

    Comdt. Srivastava while highlighting the prospects of friction in the future with respect to potential claims and counter claims, reflected that the claims and counter claims of the parties have not vanished but are rather put into cold storage till 2048. The increasing demand for minerals, gas and oil may mount pressure on Antarctica and the Antarctic Treaty in future. However, any such endeavors will need careful examination as it will do potential damage to the pristine environment and fragile ecosystem of Antarctica. He alluded to Research stations of Russia, Australia and China and various media reports on recent activities. He applauded the Antarctica Treaty system for its efforts to keep the region de-militarized and de-nuclearized. He also emphasized India’s recent endeavours such as support for protecting the Antarctic environment and co-sponsoring European Union’s proposal for designating East Antarctica and the Weddell Sea as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and Indian Antarctic Act 2022 which extends the jurisdiction of Indian courts to Antarctica.

    Report prepared by Mr. Abhishek Verma, Research Analyst, Internal Security Centre, MP-IDSA.