Special Remarks by Director, VIF at ICWA Seminar on ‘India’s Arctic Policy’, 4th March 2020

India has a long history of association with the Arctic. It became a member of the Svalbard Treaty in 1920. In 1903, Bal Gangadhar Tilak published a book titled The Arctic Home in the Vedas in which he argued that several Vedic hymns mentioned the arctic home of the Aryans1. In the last four decades, India has acquired considerable experience in polar science research, having sent numerous scientific expeditions to Antarctica. Since 2007, it has also been involved in Arctic scientific research, hence set up a permanent research stations in the Arctic for the last several years.

On the basis of India’s association with the Svalbard Treaty and its experience in polar and Himalayan research, India was admitted in 2013 as an observer in the Arctic Council which itself was set up in the 90s. As an observer of the Arctic Council, it has been taking part in a few working groups devoted to scientific research in the fields of climate change, marine biology, and atmospheric research. Indian Senior Officials have been regularly participating in the Arctic Council meetings as observers.

India’s interest in the Arctic is also governed by the fact that the melting of the Arctic Sea and the permafrost can impact on global weather. Scientific studies have shown that there is a link between the melting of the Arctic sea ice, monsoon currents, and the Himalayan glaciers. Further, the melting of the Arctic Sea ice will lead to global rise in sea levels, which will impact India’s coastal areas. Thus, India cannot remain isolated from or immune to the developments in the Arctic region.

The Arctic Council deals with a limited range of issues. It is designed to focus on the issues pertaining to the Arctic communities, Arctic geography, Arctic Sea, et cetera. It deliberately keeps out the diverse military and security issues out of its ambit.

The geopolitical impact of the melting of the Arctic’s sea ice is becoming obvious. As the Arctic sea becomes ice-free, the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans will get connected through northern routes which would be much shorter. Furthermore, the Arctic Sea is estimated to have about one-fourth of the world’s hydrocarbon resources and one eighth of natural gas resources. Thus, the Arctic sea will become a focal point of hydrocarbon exploitation.

Although the Arctic Council does not deal with security issues, this does not mean that the Arctic sea is a tension-free area. Russia’s controversial claim on the North Pole in 2007 shook the region. There are contrasting claims by the various countries on the Lomonosov continental shelf, which contain much of oil and gas resources. The Arctic sea has been and is likely to remain a focal point of geopolitical contestations is among the major powers.

The growing presence of China in the Arctic region is a new development. A resource-hungry China has stepped up its activities in the region. Attracted by its vast mineral resources and hydrocarbons, China is talking about an Arctic Silk Route to promote connectivity in the region. This is quite attractive to the local populations which those small are nevertheless are in dire need of connectivity. China has a well-articulated Arctic policy in which it describes itself as a ‘near-Arctic’ country.

Thus, the Arctic Sea is likely to see political rivalries amongst Russia China-US accentuate in the years to come. There will also be a rush for the exploitation of the resources of the Artistic Circle. The fact that the Arctic Council could not adopt a joint statement in the 2019 meeting because of the objections of the US on climate change is an indication of the differences amongst the Arctic Council members. Russia-US has a considerable military presence in the area. For Russia, in other regions falling in the Arctic Circle important from the national security and developmental perspectives. So what happens in the Arctic region outside the ambit of the Arctic Council is also important in shaping the Arctic region as a whole.

India

The question is whether India can ignore the development in the Arctic region on the ground that it is far away from the Arctic and is not directly impacted by them. This conservative model of thinking is reflected in official thinking as well. While India has been engaged in scientific and climate change research in the Arctic context, it has not really developed a comprehensive policy on the Arctic. We will need to enlarge the focus beyond scientific research and think in terms of comprehensive engagement with the Arctic Circle countries on relevant issues.

The fact that at least five Asian countries are Arctic Council observers should speak for itself. The salience of the Arctic in the global political and economic arena is going to increase as the region becomes more accessible. At the same time, the melting of the Arctic Sea ice will have a knock-on impact on the global atmosphere and oceans from which India cannot remain immune. Therefore, there is a need in India to have an integrated and comprehensive Arctic policy which combines the political, economic, scientific, technological, climate change and human dimensions.

Dialogue: To begin with, India should develop a close dialogue with all the Arctic Council members and observers on the issues pertaining to the Arctic region. This will help understand and assess the situation the developing situation better and also convey our own viewpoints.

Research, academic exchanges: India should deepen its focus on climate change and scientific research. Although our engagement in these areas has increased, it is still insufficient and it has not gathered a critical mass. The university curricula should include Arctic studies, Arctic research and link it up with the larger context of polar research and Himalayan research. More PhD is, M.Phils, student exchanges, faculty exchanges, scientific publications et cetera should be encouraged. Bilateral programs of academic exchanges with Arctic Council members like Russia Norway USA and Canada et cetera should be set up. Indian institutions should become members of the U-Arctic, the University of Arctic.

Minerals: India’s needs for rare earth is going to grow by leaps and bounds. At the moment we are dependent mostly on China. We need to identify and assess the potential of cooperation in minerals strategic minerals and rare earth areas. Russia, Greenland (Denmark) et cetera are important in this context. We need to focus especially on Greenland which has large deposits of rare earths.

Tourism: Tourism can be an instrument for greater engagement with the Arctic region countries. In our policies to promote tourism, Arctic tourism should find a place. This will have a positive economic benefit as well. It will also help us to understand the region better. Films could also be a vehicle for promoting India Arctic engagement.

Hydrocarbons: Hydrocarbons and oil and gas are obvious areas in which India can collaborate. India is interested in the Yamal natural gas terminal. ROSNEFT and ONGC had signed a MoU in this regard. The 2016 joint Indo-Russian statement and the 2019 joint statement (Vladivostok) can also be the reference points for Indo-Russian cooperation in the Arctic. More such opportunities should be identified.

Sustainable Development: The sustainable development working group in the Arctic Council should interest us as India has a deep interest in this area. We should become part of the group and take part in and participate in interactivity is.

Official Coordination: There is a need for a two-pronged approach. At the official level, the National Security Council Secretariat could become a nodal point for coordinating the activities of different official agencies like the Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Earth Sciences, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of HRD, and other line ministries as per the need.

Track 2: At the non-official level, there ought to be a greater focus on Arctic research in the think tanks and certain coordination amongst them. Track to level dialogues on the Arctic issues should be instituted. At the least, Arctic issues can be included in our global and regional conferences. Universities and think tanks should promote Arctic studies from the Indian perspective.

Science and Technology: Scientific and climate change research should continue and deepen. The Himadri research station should be expanded and its activities increased. At the same time, the No. of scientific publications should be enhanced increased.

Engage with all rim countries in ongoing scientific research

Consider participation on ongoing expeditions in collaboration with other countries.

Examine the benefits of engaging with high profile scientific NGOs such as the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), to augment ongoing ‘track 1’ collaboration.

Space Cooperation

Seek ground stations for data download and telemetry due to obvious advantages of higher latitudes.

Leverage existing MoUs on space cooperation with Arctic states.

Offer RESOURCESAT data (including archival data) for Arctic research to universities in rim countries.

Economic and Commercial

Explore areas of economic engagement with rim countries so as to boost Indian exports. Though the current volumes may be low, the scope for expansion is immense – especially as infrastructure in these countries develops due to the opening up of new shipping routes.

Develop skills, through the National Skill Development plan, in niche areas as may be required, such that Indian diaspora can seek jobs in regions where manpower is at a premium due to low population density.

Avail employment opportunities on new shipping routes to train Indian seafarers (in conjunction with Indian maritime training institutes) to sail on ice-class vessels or other specialized ships operating in the region. Providing Indian seafarers with employment, on ships all over the world was one of the aims envisaged in the maritime Policy 2010-2020 with regard to ‘maritime’ manpower target.

Examine collaboration opportunities for building ice-class vessels. Indian Register of Shipping (IRS) may develop rules in accordance with the IMO mandated Polar Code for shipping. This would not only provide business to Indian shipyards, but shipbuilding being a ’mother industry’ can create numerous jobs through ancillary industry requirements.

Explore the possibility of collaboration and knowledge-exchange in infrastructure development in extremely cold areas and applicability of such technologies in the Himalayas.


  1. Wiki says, “Tilak propounded the idea that the North Pole was the original home of Aryans during the pre-glacial period which they had to leave due to the ice deluge around 8000 B.C. and had to migrate to the Northern parts of Europe and Asia in search of lands for new settlements. In support to his theory, Tilak presented certain Vedic hymns, Avestic passages, Vedic chronology and Vedic calendars with interpretations of the contents in detail.”

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