India’s Engagement with the Polar Regions

By Hriday Sarma
Bharati, India’s Antarctic Research Station ©BOF Architekten

Background Introduction to India’s Involvement

The signing of the Svalbard Treaty in February 1920 marked the beginning of India’s involvement with the Polar Regions. However, its dedicated engagement with the region began when it launched its first Antarctic Expedition in 1981 with the establishment of the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR), an autonomous institution now under the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Government of India. Ever since, it has been involved in an array of exploration activities there, ranging from human expeditions to advanced scientific experiments, geological and geomorphological mapping, and so on.

In 2007, a five-member team of Indian scientists visited the International Arctic Research facilities at Ny-Ålesund, Norway, for a month and initiated three novel projects in atmospheric science, microbiology, and earth science and glaciology. In the following year, India set up its first Arctic research centre in the Arctic, Himadri, at Ny-Ålesund to carry out round-the-year scientific research activities. This led to India becoming a full member of the Ny-Ålesund Science Managers Committee (NySMAC). It achieved a milestone when it became an Observer State in the Arctic Council in May 2013. Enthused with this rise in stature in the polar community, the Earth System Science Organization (ESSO) under the MoES took a further bold step in the direction of Arctic exploration by successfully deploying IndARC, the country’s first multi-sensor moored observatory in the Kongsfjorden fjord of the Arctic, lying roughly half way between Norway and the North Pole.

The first Indian expedition to Antarctica, the Indian Antarctic Program, reached the ice continent on 8 January 1982. This led to India’s accession to the Antarctic Treaty System on 12 September 1983, which it had signed way back on 1 December 1959. The country established its first scientific research base station in Antarctica, Dakshin Gangotri, during its third expedition to the continent in 1983/84, when for the first time an Indian team spent a winter to conduct scientific research activities. On 22 November 2010, an eight-member expedition team of Indian scientists for the first time landed on the South Pole, which is one of the most extreme places on the Earth to be occupied. In March 2013, India’s NCAOR set up its third permanent research station, Bharati, in the Larsmann Hills section of northeast Antarctica. This station, constructed using detachable yet fully secure shipping containers, is also India’s first committed research facility in the ‘frozen continent’.


Col JK Bajaj, the first Indian and Asian to step foot on the South Pole. 17 January 1989.

With all of the aforesaid achievements, India has emerged as a reckonable player in polar matters. Therefore, the scientific community in the country – especially the polar fraternity – deserves a pat on the back! However, their research output and contribution still greatly lag when compared with counterparts from smaller polar nations, such as Finland and New Zealand, and prominent world powers, like China and Japan.

L Ramanathan, Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and a leading academician in India working on Polar and Glacial Geochemistry, says, “The Arctic is divided up between the five Arctic [littoral] powers – Canada, Norway, Russia, Denmark (Greenland and the Faroe Islands), the United States – and few other countries in or near the Arctic, like Finland, Sweden, and Iceland. They have been playing the lead role with all Arctic-related affairs on the global arena. At present, India has limited scope to emerge as a prominent Arctic player with the knowledge and resources that we have in hand. We may only cooperate with these countries to make relative gains in Arctic exploration, which the concerned bodies in India are trying with modest success.”

Prof Ramanathan further adds, “For Antarctica is a no man’s land where no particular country or group of countries have dominance, unlike in the Arctic; hence, India has ample opportunities to establish itself as a leading player there. Right now, India is only working in specific regions and conducting basic-level research studies in this largely unexplored continent. In the future, we can pursue research activities in new realms, such as assessment of deep ocean resources, impact analysis of climate change on Southern Ocean Circulation, geological links between the Earth’s Poles and the Himalayas, etc.”

The Big Problem

Even today topics pertaining to the Earth’s geographic poles are somewhat fanciful to Indian academics and policy makers. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) claims India’s interests in the Arctic region are scientific, environmental, commercial and strategic; but as yet it does not have a clear roadmap to deal with wide ranging challenges in these areas. The common people in the country are completely ignorant about how the Earth’s poles matter to their survival and continued prosperity. India is quite a distance away from the Earth’s poles, and thus, the people and policy makers are not paying heed to the warning signs coming from the Polar Regions in recent years.

At present, India continues to tread on its excessive fossil-dependent economic development pathway while attempting to catch up with the developed Western nations. All development activities continue without any care for the larger interests of humanity and the Earth. So, here is a big problem which, if not handled cautiously, will result in nature’s backlash at the systemic level.

Proposed Scheme of Action

Below are certain recommendations that all stakeholders in India need to urgently take up for preserving the Polar Regions. This will do good to not only them and their future generations, but, in the process, will generate plausibly benefits to the international community, including the Polar nations. Hence, it is equally important for the international community to play an active role in empowering India to responsibly work in the said direction.    

  • Educating everyone about the Polar Regions
    All academic institutions in India, including schools, colleges and universities, should introduce courses and modules on the Arctic and the Antarctic. The structure of these courses and modules need to be defined according to the comprehension level of the target audience. Say for example, primary schools may include lessons in social studies textbooks that talk about basic topics relating to the region, like permafrost geography, flora and fauna habitats, domiciling indigenous communities, etc. Universities, on the other hand, may offer research programmes where students can undertake individual and/or group research on scientific and socio-technical topics on the regions. Moreover, the mass media in the country may present unbiased facts about the Polar Regions to make people knowledgeable about the subject.
  • Creating awareness of Polar climate change and its global implication
    The research organisations in India, including think-tanks, universities and policy-formulating institutions, need to focus on topics relating to climate change in the Polar Regions and vulnerabilities posed due to that on all life species on the Earth, including human beings. Further, they need to widely disseminate their research findings and recommendations to maximum number of people within the country. This will create a two-way interaction process between the research organisations and the commoners where the former will be able to acquaint the latter with factual and analytical data, while the latter will be able to share critical perspectives for further action-research to be pursued by the former.
  • Engaging market players and civil society alongside public organisations
    It is necessary for the Indian government to constantly engage with diverse private companies, both big and small, and civil society organisations, which include environmental NGOs among others, to effectively deal with Polar-related issues. This may include India’s climate polices, national endeavours for transitioning to clean/ renewable energy, participation in Polar geopolitics, and so on. If all three stakeholders start participating on a level-playing-field, this will then create general consensus on contentious issues and bring up optimal results in various projects that impact the Polar Regions, whether directly or indirectly.
  • Devising a comprehensive roadmap to deal with the Polar Regions
    India still does not have an official roadmap or strategic document defining its political stand on wide-ranging polar-related issues. So, the public/ private organisations, which work on specific aspects of the Earth’s poles, must endeavour to uphold their respective institutional interests while dealing with counterparts from other countries. This means such organisations are failing to synchronise their actions without a clear national vision or larger objectives. Hence, there is an urgent need for the government of India to devise a comprehensive strategy to deal with the entire gamut of issues and activities pertaining to the Polar Regions.
  • Initiating regional cooperation on the Polar Regions
    India is the foremost power within South Asia. In fact, this region is also commonly called the Indian subcontinent due to its distinctive geographic resemblances, historic ties, and cultural affinities. Within the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) framework, an economic and political regional organisation, India has maintained an influential position. The region hosts the mighty Himalayas – also referred to as a Third Polar Region – that has natural geological linkages to the Arctic and the Antarctic; hence, India’s needs to galvanise regional cooperation on all Polar related issues.


India has enormous potential to contribute to the pursuit of scientific exploration and the preservation of the Polar Regions. However, knowledge lag on the subject of Polar Regions among its population and the lack of determined political will are acting as major barriers to achieving any breakthrough in this direction.

At this hour, the international community must try to facilitate India’s proactive engagement with the Polar Regions as one among equals with the Polar powers. Otherwise, India will largely continue with its existing development course that is environmentally detrimental to all of us on this planet. India, in turn, needs to take into account the looming global environment crisis and voluntarily act in ways that are geared towards protecting the Polar Regions.  

Hriday Ch Sarma serves as Associate (India and the Polar Regions) at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Hriday is currently pursuing his PhD in Energy Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. He holds an MA and MPhil in International Relations, and completed advanced diploma courses in international law and environment management.
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