Baba’s Explainer – Antarctic Regulation

  • IASbaba
  • August 3, 2022
  • 0
Environment & Ecology
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  • GS-3: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.
  • GS-3: Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation

Context: The Parliament has passed the Indian Antarctic Bill 2022 to assist in protecting the frozen continent where India operates two research centres and is part of several scientific explorations.

  • Till date, India neither has any laws governing its activities on the continent, nor any authority to issue permits for any kind of expeditions.
  • Antarctica is the southernmost continent and does not have any indigenous population. The entire region is demilitarised and is used for scientific and peaceful purposes as per the Antarctic Treaty

About Antarctica

  • Antarctica is a vast ice-covered landmass surrounded by sea (unlike the Arctic, which is an ice-covered ocean surrounded by land). It’s bigger than Europe, and in summer, it’s still 62 times the size of the UK!
  • Antarctica is the world’s highest, driest, windiest and coldest continent. Its record low temperature is -94°C. But it doesn’t actually snow much – the Antarctic is so dry it’s classed as a polar desert.
  • And it’s in darkness part of the year. There are no trees, or shrubs, and only two kinds of native flowering plant.
  • Not surprisingly there are no people permanently living or native to Antarctica – although there can be up to 5,000 scientists and researchers based there
  • Antarctica has no land-based mammals – just some hardy flightless insects – but it’s rich in sealife, including seabirds like penguins, whales, seals and shrimp-like krill.
Why the Antarctic is so important?

The huge frozen landmass at the bottom of our planet is more than just spectacular icing on the globe. It could be vital for our survival too.

  • Moderating Global Temperature: The Antarctic ice deflects some of the sun’s rays away from the Earth, keeping temperatures liveable.
  • Sea Level Rise: Although it’s not predicted that the massive Antarctic ice sheets are likely to melt completely, even small-scale melting would raise global sea levels, and cause flooding around the world.
  • Supports Marine Life: The ocean surrounding the continent also support masses of the world’s sealife – including 15 species of whale and dolphin, and five species of penguin. The nutrient-rich waters encourage blooms of tiny plankton, the basis of the ocean food chain.
  • Natural laboratories: The Antarctic is one of the world’s least disturbed places. It is helping us understand global climate change now, the unique archive locked in Antarctica’s nearly 4km thick ice sheet tells us what our planet’s climate has been like over almost a million years.
    • Antarctic continental ice contains climate records extending back more than 800,000 years, which have been obtained from ice cores.
  • Sensitive indicators of present-day environmental change: Antarctic science has also revealed much about the impact of human activity on the natural world. The discovery in 1985 of the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica revealed the damage done to the Earth’s atmosphere by man-made chemicals.
  • Common Resource: The continent is a no-man’s land — a natural reserve that belongs to no country. It is only governed by global agreements. However, it is increasingly vulnerable, especially to global warming, climate change, Pirate fishing, pollution and unsustainable exploration of minerals.
How has Indian role in Antarctic evolved over the years?
  • In February 1956, at the instance of Jawaharlal Nehru and V.K. Krishna Menon, that India became the first country in the world to request for an item on the agenda of the 11th UN General Assembly entitled “The Question of Antarctica”.
  • The reasoning behind Antarctica wanting to be discussed in UN was to ensure that the vast areas and its resources (particularly atomic energy minerals) were used entirely for peaceful purposes (possible experimentation of atomic weapons) and for general welfare.
  • But India did not press the point further because it got caught up later in the year with the almost simultaneous crises in the Suez and Hungary
  • But the Nehru-Menon initiative, twelve countries who believed that they had a direct stake in Antarctica started discussions among themselves and on December 1, 1959 the Antarctica Treaty was signed in Washington DC.
    • The Twelve countries included Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States and USSR
    • Not surprisingly, since its moves at the UN had irked a number of countries including the USSR, India was neither involved nor invited.
  • Subsequently, Antarctica faded from the Indian geopolitical gaze.
  • However, the morning of January 9, 1982, transformed the international discourse when news of India’s first Antarctic expedition reaching its destination stunned the world. No other Asian country, including China, had a presence there. A second expedition landed in Antarctica on December 10, 1982.
  • With two expeditions successfully completed within a span of 11 months, India finally became a member of the Antarctic Treaty in August 1983 and China followed in 1985.
  • 1984 saw two more striking Indian achievements: its first Antarctic team started wintering there from March 1, 1984 and a few months afterwards an unmanned Antarctic research base named as Dakshin Gangotri was established
  • Since then, India has set up two manned esearch stations in Antarctica — Maitri in 1988 and Bharati in 2012. Forty expeditions to the continent have taken place.
  • The major thrust areas of the Indian Antarctic Programme are climate processes and links to climate change, environmental processes and conservation and polar technology. The operational expenditure of the Antarctic expedition is ₹90-110 crore annually depending on the projects and services.
  • National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCPOR) is the nodal agency for planning, promotion, coordination and execution of the entire gamut of polar and southern ocean scientific research in the country as well as for the associated logistics activities. It was established in 1998.
What is Antarctic Treaty?
  • The Antarctic Treaty came into force on June 23, 1961 after ratification by the 12 countries then active in Antarctic science.
  • The Treaty covers the area south of 60°S latitude.
  • Its headquarters is located in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • Currently it has 54 parties. India became a member of this treaty in 1983.
    • Of the 54 signatory countries, 29 have ‘consultative’ status that give them voting rights.
  • Its key objectives are
    • to demilitarise Antarctica
    • to establish it as a zone free of nuclear tests and the disposal of radioactive waste
    • to ensure that it is used for peaceful purposes only
    • to promote international scientific cooperation in Antarctica
    • to set aside disputes over territorial sovereignty. Neutralising territorial sovereignty, this means a limit was placed on making any new claim or enlargement of an existing claim.
  • The Treaty parties meet each year at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. They have adopted over 300 recommendations and negotiated separate international agreements.
  • However, a key reason why the treaty has been able to survive has been its ability to evolve through a number of additional conventions and other legal protocols.
  • These have dealt with the conservation of marine living resources, prohibitions on mining, and the adoption of comprehensive environmental protection mechanisms.
  • As disputes have arisen over the years, many have been addressed through the expansion of the treaty framework with these agreements. This framework is now referred to as the Antarctic Treaty System.
    • Antarctic Treaty System is the whole complex of arrangements made for the purpose of regulating relations among states in the Antarctic.
    • Its purpose is to ensure in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.
    • It is a global achievement and has been a hallmark of international cooperation for more than 50 years.
    • These agreements are legally binding and purpose-built for the unique geographical, environmental and political characteristics of the Antarctic and form a robust international governance framework for the region.
  • Major International Agreements of the Treaty System:
    • The 1959 Antarctic Treaty.
    • The 1972 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals.
    • The 1980 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.
    • The 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.
What are the key feature of the 2022 bill passed by Parliament?

The Bill passed by Parliament has been under discussion in the government for over five years at least. It provides a detailed legal framework for India’s Antarctic activities that is consistent with its international treaty obligations.

  • Objective: The Bill seeks to give effect to the Antarctic Treaty, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.   It also seeks to protect the Antarctic environment and regulate activities in the region.
  • Applicability: The provisions of the Bill will apply to any person, vessel or aircraft that is a part of an Indian expedition to Antarctica under a permit issued under the Bill.  Areas comprising of Antarctica include:
    • the continent of Antarctica, including its ice-shelves, and all areas of the continental shelf adjacent to it, and
    • all islands (including their ice-shelves), seas, and air space south of 60°S latitude
  • Central committee:The central government will establish a Committee on Antarctic Governance and Environmental Protection.  The Committee will be chaired by the Secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences.  10 members, not below the rank of joint secretary, will be nominated from various Ministries and organisations.
  • Need for permit: A permit by the Committee will be required for various activities. Before a permit is granted by the Committee, the applicant has to carry out an environmental impact assessment of the proposed activities.  Moreover, a permit must not be granted unless a waste management plan has been prepared for the expedition by the Committee.
  • Prohibited activities: The Bill prohibits certain activities in Antarctica including: (i) nuclear explosion or disposal of radioactive wastes, (ii) introduction of non-sterile soil, and (iii) discharge of garbage, plastic or other substance into the sea which is harmful to the marine environment.
  • Offences and penalties: Drilling for mineral resources or introducing non-native animals or plants in Antarctica without a permit will be punishable with imprisonment up to seven years and a fine between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 50 lakh. conducting a nuclear explosion in Antarctica will be punishable with an imprisonment of 20 years and Rs 50 Crore fine.
  • The central government may notify one or more Sessions Courts to be the Designated Court under the Bill and specify its territorial jurisdiction to try offences punishable under the Bill.
What are the benefits of the Antarctic Bill, 2022?
  • Specific Legal Framework: The bill provides a regulatory framework for India’s Antarctic activities through legal mechanisms which will help in the efficient operation of the Indian Antarctic Programme.
  • Accountability of Activities: The enforcement of such laws will confer jurisdiction on the courts of India to deal with any dispute or crimes committed in parts of Antarctica. Legislation of such a kind will bind the citizens to the policies of the Antarctic treaty system. The bill will be applicable on Indian citizens, as well as foreign citizens, and any company registered in India or any sea vessel registered in India.
  • Builds India’s Credibility: Legislation of such a kind will bind the citizens to the policies of the Antarctic treaty system. This will be useful to increase India’s international visibility and credibility in Polar governance for cooperation in scientific studies and logistics.
  • Sustainable Development: The bill plans to facilitate India’s involvement in the management of tourism in the Antarctic and the sustainable development of fisheries.
  • Ensures De-militarisation: The bill aim is to ensure de-militarisation of the (Antarctic) region along with getting rid of mining or illegal activities.
What lies ahead?
  • The issue of a polar research vessel, however, still needs to be addressed immediately. So far, India has been chartering such ships from countries like Russia and Norway while China has raced ahead and has two of its own.
  • The acquisition of a vessel on a permanent basis is a logical next step to the passage of the Bill as also the revamp of the quite old Maitri research station.
  • The polar research vessel will also be required as India expands its association with and involvement in the Arctic as well.
    • India’s research station there called Himadri was inaugurated in July 2008 and five years later India got observer status at the eight-country Arctic Council.

Mains Practice Question – As a country with global ambitions, India’s polar engagement can be seen as representing its own aspirations. Comment.

Note: Write answers to this question in the comment section.


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