India and the Arctic: Prospects for Collaboration with Russia

A number of Asian countries have exhibited interest in the Arctic region. They are also closely monitoring the unfolding resource potential of the Northern Sea Route. India and Russia can be proactive and work towards early adoption of the Polar Code which is facing a number of challenges.

The decreasing extent and volume of the Arctic ice has attracted international attention. It is predicted that the Arctic could be ice free seasonally in the next two to three decades which would result in several opportunities in terms of resources (oil and gas, metals and minerals) and shorter routes that can compress transit times for cargo from Asia to Europe and vice-versa through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and the North West Passage (NWP).

A number of Asian countries have exhibited interest in the Arctic region and are currently focused on scientific studies. They are also closely monitoring the unfolding resource potential of the region as also the possibility of using the NSR. China, Japan, Korea and Singapore have made significant headway and drawn plans to use the NSR and are investing in shipbuilding, shipping and resource exploitation plans. These Asian countries along with India joined the Arctic Council on May 15, 2013 at the Eighth Biennial Ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in Kiruna, Norway.

India’s interest in polar studies can be traced back to the 1980s when it established the National Centre for Antarctic & Ocean Research (NCAOR) at Goa. Since then, it has set up three permanent research stations in the Antarctic at ‘Dakshin Gangotri’ (1983), ‘Maitri’ (1989), and ‘Bharati’ (2012).

As far as the Arctic is concerned, India is a signatory to the 1925 ‘Treaty concerning the Archipelago of Spitsbergen’ or the ‘Svalbard Treaty’. At that time, India was part of the British overseas dominions. In 2007, India established a scientific research station ‘Himadri’ at Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen and gave a thrust to India’s endeavour in the advancement of Polar Sciences.

There are a number of national science research institutions that support India’s Arctic programme. These institutions have acquired extensive knowledge and experience through studies on glaciology, microbiology and environment in the Antarctica.

India’s entry into the Arctic Council is in essence a natural extension of its engagement in the Antarctic and the government remains committed to scientific and environmental research activities. The spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs underlined New Delhi’s “commitment to contribute our proven scientific expertise, particularly in polar research capabilities, to the work of the Arctic Council and to support its objectives’.

The draft approach paper for the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) of the Earth System Science Organisation of the Ministry of Earth Sciences notes that Indian scientists would focus on the study of the modern biogeochemical cycling in the snow packs and sea ice to identify the possible triggers in the seemingly less understood, but crucial linkage in the controlling mechanisms in the response of the ice cover to the warming trend. The other areas of research would be the deployment of a multi-sensor ocean-atmosphere mooring in Kongsfjorden, Svalbard for long term climate variability studies.

Russia is an important Arctic state and India sees several opportunities for cooperation in the scientific, commercial and strategic domains. Perhaps the most significant bilateral cooperation can be in Arctic scientific studies related to seasonal, annual and long-term variations in climate, influence of the Arctic region on the Indian Monsoon, impact of Arctic on the Himalayas, studies relating to atmospheric aerosols over the Arctic, glaciology, and microbiology. India also has enormous expertise in Remote Sensing and can contribute to data collection, collation and dissemination. Russia can also share its knowledge of the Arctic with the National Centre for Antarctic & Ocean Research (NCAOR) which has drawn plans to publish a composite geological map of the Arctic.

Besides scientific studies, India can also be expected to expand research in the field of resources. Part of this shift can be attributed to the evolving geo-economic shift to the North pivoting on oil and gas, deep-sea mining, and fishing and these activities would be of immense economic value to India. In that context, Russia can play a significant role in India’s energy security. In the past, the state owned ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) has been engaged with Russian oil companies in the Sakhalin oil projects and this has resulted in OVL gaining some expertise in cold-climate oil and gas exploration ventures. It is now engaging oil giants such as the Gazprom and Rosneft in the Arctic.

India is blessed with enormous human dividend and is in a position to supply skilled and trained human resource for navigation and engineering duties onboard ships operating in the Arctic. Further, the growth in Arctic cruise industry requires addition seafarers capable of managing onboard activity. Finally, India and Russia can be proactive and work towards early adoption of the Polar Code which is facing a number of challenges. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.