The Arctic Policy of India, titled ‘India’s Arctic Policy: Building a Partnership for Sustainable Development’, has been published recently by the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Government of India, and has drawn considerable global attention. India’s draft policy was open to public comments from December 2020 to January 2021. After receiving inputs from academia, scientists, strategic think tanks and the general public, India’s Arctic policy was released on 17 March 2022.
India’s Arctic Policy is released at a time of uncertainty when Russia still holds the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, but the seven other Arctic states, through a Joint statement, have pressed the ‘pause button’ on the activities of the Arctic Council due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. India has not sided with any of the major blocs, staying neutral since the Cold war period, and continues to adopt a similar position now. It is unclear if the timing of the release of the policy can be seen as a signal to maintain global peace and to continue cooperation in the Arctic region, or it may just be a coincidence, as the policy had been under preparation for some time.
India’s motivation for an Arctic policy is based on its need to focus on and strengthen its longstanding engagement in the Arctic region through its scientific research, but also to adopt a multi-dimensional and holistic approach beyond its research engagements in the region. Also, the other Asian observer states, such as China, Japan and South Korea, have already released Arctic policies or strategies; India, by releasing its Arctic policy, intends to demonstrate clearly its own interests and commitments towards the region.
India’s Arctic Policy document refers to its historical and contemporary engagement in the Arctic region. Although India’s Arctic engagement began a century ago with the signing of the Svalbard Treaty in 1920, its more regular engagement with the region began in 2007, with the launching of its first scientific expedition in the Arctic.
India has shown a continuous commitment since then, with the establishment of a permanent International Arctic research base ‘Himadri’ at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, in 2008; deploying a multi-sensor moored observatory ‘IndArc’ in Kongsfjorden in 2014; and setting up its northernmost Atmospheric laboratory in Gruvebadet in 2016. India has also conducted 13 expeditions in the Arctic and currently has 23 ongoing key scientific projects. India is a member of the International Arctic Science Committee, Ny-Ålesund Science Managers Committee, University of Arctic, and Asian Forum of Polar Sciences, and plays an important role in the Arctic scientific community. India’s ties to the Arctic further deepened when it became an observer state in the Arctic Council at the Arctic Council meeting held at Kiruna in 2013 and renewed its status in 2019 in Rovaniemi.
The initial draft policy was structured on 5 pillars: Science and Research, Economic and Human Development, Transportation and Connectivity, Governance and International Cooperation, and National Capacity Building. An important additional pillar of ‘Climate Change and Environmental Protection’ is added, making it a total of 6 pillars on which the Indian Arctic Policy rests, showing its commitment to strengthening international efforts on combating climate change and protection, and harmonising polar research between the two poles and the Himalayan region.
India is home to a major part of the Himalayas, which, at times, is referred to as the Third Pole. The drastic melting of the glaciers, flooding of the plains, severe monsoon effects, and inundation of coastal cities due to climate change are serious concerns in India. India, in the policy document, speaks clearly about the impact of climate change on its economy and its effect on the yield of summer crops such as rice, pulses, and soybeans which contributes to almost 50% of India’s food output, which is totally dependent on the monsoon cycle and the glacial waters that feed its river system. India, with a population of 1.3 billion, cannot afford to risk its food security, water security, and economic security.
The Arctic Policy emphasises the need to study the linkages between the glaciers in the Arctic and Himalayas, citing the IPCC’s Special Report on Ocean and Cryosphere (2019). The National Center for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) is the nodal body that functions under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, which conducts research activities and various scientific expeditions in both the poles and also in the Himalayas. India sees itself as a ‘Tripolar state’, with its presence in both the poles through its research facilities, and in the Himalayas, through which it is able to contribute efficiently in the area of scientific and environmental research, especially in the area of climate change by harmonising the research conducted in the Polar Regions and the Himalayas.
India is also interested in working with the various working groups of the Arctic Council to contribute towards the conservation of Arctic flora and fauna, marine environmental protection, addressing environmental emergencies, search and rescue efforts, and more. The Policy focuses on further strengthening India’s scientific research through cooperation with Arctic states and other partners. To increase its capacity, India is planning to set up dedicated institutional funding support for Arctic research at the national level.
India has undertaken 13 expeditions to the Arctic and 41 expeditions to the Antarctic; yet, it has been chartering Polar Research Vehicles to conduct its research. In October 2014, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved the acquisition of an icebreaker vessel, but due to escalated cost and changes in design and technical specifications, it did not go ahead. India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on ‘Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change’ 2021-2022 has requested the allocation of funds towards the acquisition of Polar Research Vehicles. India’s Arctic Policy document also stresses the urgent need to acquire ice-class Polar Research Vessels and to strengthen India’s domestic capability to build such vessels through the initiatives of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ (Self Reliant India) and ‘Make in India’ – not least to bring India in line with other Asian observer states such as China and Japan.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is known for its cost-effective launching of satellites, and India is keen on sharing its expertise in ‘providing effective satellite-enabled communication and digital connectivity in remote areas in the Arctic’. India has launched a geostationary communication and meteorological satellite named South Asia Satellite (formerly known as SAARC Satellite) to support regional cooperation and to benefit its neighbouring states by providing support in areas such as telecommunication, meteorological forecasting and disaster management support, and India also supports the IMO through its regional navigation satellite system. The policy also discusses the US-India NASA-ISRO collaborative mission NISAR which will be launching a satellite to study earth-changing ecosystems, ice mass, sea-level rise due to climate change, and more, intended for ‘better management of the natural resources and hazards globally, including the Arctic’.
Although India’s focus till now was primarily on scientific research and climate change, the new Arctic policy has increased India’s engagement towards other areas such as its economic and strategic interest, international cooperation, and capacity building. India has tried to balance its energy needs, climate change and geopolitics through its Arctic policy.
A nation with more than a sixth of the global population needs to balance its energy needs as well as its environmental concerns. India is the third largest energy consumer in the world. However, as per its commitment at COP26, it is trying to reduce its dependence on coal. This can only be achieved by moving towards other renewable resources in the long term, and oil and gas in the short to medium term. India’s Arctic Policy acknowledges the fact that ‘The Arctic region constitutes the largest unexplored prospective area of hydrocarbons remaining on Earth. The region also contains large reserves of mineral deposits’. India’s Policy commits to collaborating with Arctic states, and respecting the rights of the indigenous communities, while engaging in living and non-living explorations in accordance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
India’s Policy also focuses on partnering with Arctic nations in generating green energy, utilising capacities and creating more green and clean business. India and Denmark have entered into a green strategic partnership with cooperation in the areas of green technology, renewable energy, pollution control, waste management, and more. There are currently not many investments in the Arctic region by private players from India. However, the Arctic policy encourages Indian companies to seek membership of the Arctic Economic Council and engage with the 5 working groups: responsible resource development; maritime transportation; connectivity; investment and infrastructure; and blue economy. India plans to develop a responsible strategy in creating alliances with Arctic states in sustainable resource extraction, keeping in mind its global commitments, the serious environmental implication, and the concerns of the indigenous community.
India shows interest in collaborating with the Arctic states in building low-cost digital networks in the area of education, food supply and health care, collaborating with indigenous communities in both the Arctic and Himalayan region in facilitating their exchange in traditional knowledge. India is home to many time-tested traditional systems of medicine such as Ayurveda, Siddha, and Yunani, and also provides telemedicine support to remote areas. There is abundant scope for improving interactions and exchange of knowledge between the indigenous communities.
Russia’s coastline accounts for 53% of the Arctic Ocean coastline, and the country’s population in the region totals roughly 2 million people – that is, half of the population living in the Arctic region. Unlike Europe, India’s dependency on Russian crude oil is less than 1%. India’s oil imports are primarily from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and it is also planning to increase its imports from the US from 7.3% to 11%. At the same time, it is keen on diversifying its imports. Russia, which India views as a strategic partner, is seen as a natural choice when it comes to increasing crude oil and LNG imports.
Following the visit of the Russian President to India in December 2021, in a joint statement, ‘Both the parties reaffirmed their commitment for increasing sourcing of Russian crude oil on long term contracts through preferential pricing, strengthening LNG imports to India, and the possible utilization of the Northern Sea Route for energy supplies’. There is increasing pressure on India to condemn the Russian invasion on Ukraine, but so far it has refused to choose sides. However, it has called for the immediate cessation of violence and hostilities and return to the path of dialogue and diplomacy. New Delhi, in the last two weeks, saw a flurry of visits from foreign ministers, securities advisors and other dignitaries from NATO allies, QUAD members and also the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi.
The UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who was also in India, was critical of India’s position on continuing to import heavily discounted Russian oil. In response, the Indian Foreign minister S Jaishankar replied that it was Europe that has imported 15% more oil and gas in the month of March from Russia, and India certainly will not be in the top 10 buyers of Russian oil in the upcoming days. Although India currently is clearly not dependant of Russian oil, it plans to further diversify its imports in the future to secure its energy needs and to protect its ‘national interest’. India sees Russia as an important state in the Arctic region and vital for its connectivity to the region. India’s Arctic policy promotes a demilitarised and environment-friendly Arctic, which is crucial for the peaceful and sustainable development of the region.
China’s engagements in the region have also increased drastically. Although the Arctic policy does not mention any of these issues, the elephant cannot afford to miss the dragon in the room when China is projecting itself as a ‘Near Arctic state’ and its interest in developing the Polar Silk Road. India might not have a similar interest in the NSR passage due to its geographical positioning but its Arctic policy acknowledges the potential of the Arctic Sea route and its future as an alternate route to the traditional Suez Canal route. India, as the third-largest sea-faring nation, does not want to be left out of the future opportunities in the region; hence, it looks forward to participating in environmental monitoring and regulation, safety, and building its capacity in the ice-covered region.
The Chennai Vladivostok Maritime Corridor, which passes through the South China Sea, is planned to increase Indo-Russia bilateral trade and at the same time counter the influence of China. The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a multimodal freight corridor, is promoted as an alternative to the Suez Canal route, and also the Chinese Polar Silk Road which is part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, by lowering the shipping cost and the number of days of transport. The Policy promotes the need for the INSTC for the ‘overall development of the hinterland and the indigenous communities, more than the East-west connectivity’. India understands the evolving regional and international geopolitical realities, the current crisis triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the shifting world order. These new realities will drive the future approach of India in the region.
To date, the NCPOR handles scientific research, and the Ministry of External Affairs handles the geopolitical issues and interactions with the Arctic Council on behalf of the Government of India. To further deepen the engagement in the Arctic, several other ministries, departments, and research Institutes have been roped in. This shows India’s serious interest in the region. India’s Arctic Policy is planned to be implemented through a structured action plan, and the inter-ministerial-empowered Arctic Policy Group will look into the effective governance and review mechanism of the Arctic Policy. India’s Arctic policy is comprehensive but there should be a serious and concerted effort in implementing it. Also, there is a need for a timely and enhanced yearly budget allocation to support the implementation.
India’s Arctic Policy is a well-crafted document, and it adopts a holistic approach to addressing the issues at hand in the rapidly changing Arctic region. As former president of Iceland Mr. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson once said, “The future of India will be, to a large extent, determined by the Arctic and the future of Arctic will also be determined by what takes place in India and other Asian countries”; in an interconnected and interdependent world, mutual cooperation and responsible development will certainly benefit both. India’s Arctic policy focuses not just on just scientific research but also on international cooperation in the areas of business; sustainable development; establishing people-to-people contact; capacity building in legal, social, policy and governance issues, and more. India’s Arctic policy also quotes its Vedic philosophy, ‘Vasudeva Kutumbakam’, which means the world is a family. India’s focus on the Arctic will reflect this, at the same time balancing its own national interest in the region.