The Union government has introduced the Indian Antarctic bill, 2022, which aims to regulate a range of activities on territories in Antarctica where India has set up research stations. It has several redeeming features. If the bill were to be passed into law, private tours and expeditions to Antarctica would be prohibited without a permit or written authorization by any one of the member countries — the 54 signatories of the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959, which India joined in 1983. The bill also directs the creation of an Antarctic fund that will be used for protecting the fragile environment of the remote continent. The bill also extends the jurisdiction of Indian courts to Antarctica, laying out penal provisions for crimes on the continent by Indian and foreign citizens who are a part of Indian expeditions or are in the precincts of Indian research stations. This is heartening for even though Antarctica is the highest, windiest, coldest, one of the most inaccessible and inhospitable of earth’s continents, recent studies have indicated that the region is rich in natural resources. This, expectedly, has started a race among countries to claim a chunk of Antarctica.
Although the Antarctic Treaty bans military activity and prospecting for minerals on the continent, the eagerness to fund scientific expeditions to unearth what lies under the snow is not innocuous. According to some estimates, the amount of oil to be found in Antarctica could be 200 billion barrels, far more than what lies in Kuwait or Abu Dhabi. Antarctic oil is extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive to extract. But an energy-hungry world could be desperate by 2048 when the protocol banning Antarctic prospecting comes up for renewal. Moreover, while the Treaty has put all territorial claims into abeyance, it has not stopped rule-bending. Russia has bases all around Antarctica; the United States of America operates a base at the South Pole, which conveniently straddles every territorial claim; China has five bases. All of Antarctica’s 68 bases — including India’s — are professedly peaceful research stations, established for scientific purposes, but the ban on militarization is widely flouted. Not only do countries like Chile have military bases there, but the Australian government also identified one of China’s bases as a threat because of its surveillance potential. Status quo in Antarctica depends on self-regulation. Worse, the Antarctic Treaty has no teeth. In the face of intensifying competition for natural resources and unforeseen intelligence-gathering opportunities, it is likely to fail, making the Indian bill redundant.
Even the Indian bill is riddled with contradictions. While professing to be sensitive towards environmental concerns, it permits commercial fishing and tourism in a territory that is ecologically fragile. This is not to say that India is the only country looking to further its economic prospects in the Antarctic. But as one of 29 nations with a right to vote at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings, India is in a position to demand greater accountability instead of angling for a piece of the pie. But then, the history of mankind has shown that scientific enterprise is seldom divorced from colonial prospecting. Indigenous societies were laid to waste in the past. It is now the turn for the Antarctic and even outer space.