Last week at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting at Rovaniemi, Finland, India was re-elected as an Observer to the Arctic Council. India was first granted the Observer status in 2013, along with five other nations.
The Arctic Council
The Arctic Council calls itself “the leading intergovernmental forum” for discussing and addressing issues concerning the Arctic region, including scientific research, and peaceful and sustainable use of resources in the region.
The Council was established by the eight Arctic States — the countries whose territories fall in the Arctic region — through the Ottawa Declaration of 1996. The eight Arctic States — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States — are the only members of the Arctic Council.
Besides them, six organisations representing the indigenous people of the Arctic region have been granted the status of permanent participants. All decision-making happens through consensus between the eight members, and in consultation with the permanent participants.
The Council is not a treaty-based international legal entity like the UN bodies or trade, military or regional groupings like WTO, NATO or ASEAN. It is only an intergovernmental ‘forum’ to promote cooperation in regulating the activities in the Arctic region. It is much more informal grouping.
Through six working groups, each dealing with a specific subject, the Arctic Council seeks to evolve a consensus on the activities that can be carried out in the Arctic region in keeping with the overall objective of conserving the pristine environment, biodiversity, and the interests and well-being of the local populations.
India’s role in Arctic Council
India, along with 12 other countries, is Observers to the Arctic Council. So are 13 intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary organisations like the UN Environment Programme, and the UN Development Programme, and 12 other non-governmental organisations. The Observers are not part of the decision-making processes, but they are invited to attend the meetings of the Council, especially at the level of the working groups.
The Observer status is granted to entities that support the objectives of the Arctic Council, and have demonstrated capabilities in this regard, including the ability to make financial contributions. The renewal of Observer status is a formality. The status, once granted, continues till there is a consensus among the members that the Observer was engaging in activities that run counter to the objectives of the Arctic Council.
India had been given the Observer status in 2013, along with five other countries — China, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Prior to this group, only France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom were granted Observer status. In 2017, Switzerland too became an Observer.
India’s involvement in the Arctic
India is one of the very few countries to set up a permanent station in the Arctic for the purposes of scientific research. The polar regions offer some unique opportunities to carry out research related to atmospheric and climate sciences that cannot be done anywhere else.
The Himadri research station, located in Ny Alesund, Svalbard in Norway, about 1200 km south of the North Pole, was started in July 2008. The Goa-based National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCOAR) is the nodal organisation coordinating the research activities at this station.
The station has been used to carry out a variety of biological, glaciological and atmospheric and climate sciences research projects in the last one decade, with over 200 scientists from a number of institutions, universities and laboratories having accessed the facilities at the station.
Himadri came on the back of India’s three-decade experience of carrying out scientific research in the polar regions of Antarctica which began in 1981. India’s first permanent station in Antarctica was set up way back in 1983. In 2010, Indian scientists undertook a scientific expedition to the South Pole as well. India is now among the very few countries which have multiple research stations in the Antarctic.
Commercial and strategic interests
The Arctic region is very rich in some minerals, and oil and gas. With some parts of the Arctic melting due to global warming, the region also opens up the possibility of new shipping routes that can reduce existing distances. Countries which already have ongoing activities in the Arctic hope to have a stake in the commercial exploitation of natural resources present in the region.
The Arctic Council does not prohibit the commercial exploitation of resources in the Arctic. It only seeks to ensure that it is done in a sustainable manner without harming the interests of local populations and in conformity with the local environment.