Explained: What is Indian Antarctic Bill 2022 and why is it important

The Lok Sabha last week passed the Indian Antarctic Bill 2022 to assist in protecting the frozen continent where India operates two research centers and is part of several scientific explorations.

During a discussion on the bill, Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Earth Sciences, Jitendra Singh said, “the main aim is to ensure de-militarization of the (Antarctic) region along with getting rid of mining or illegal activities.”

Antarctica is the southernmost continent and does not have any indigenous population. The entire region is demilitarized and is used for scientific and peaceful purposes as per the Antarctic Treaty that came into force on June 23, 1961.

What is the Antarctic treaty?

The Antarctic Treaty was signed on December 01, 1959, by 12 countries: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the USSR, the UK and the US. Their objective was to demilitarize Antarctica, promote international scientific cooperation, and to set aside territorial sovereignty disputes.

In the following years, more countries joined the Antarctic treaty. There are now 54 members, of which 29 countries have consultative (voting) status in the Antarctic Consultative Meetings held annually and 25 countries have non-consultative membership. India became a member of the Antarctic Treaty on August 19, 1983, and on September 12 of the same year, it received consultative status.

Following the Antarctic treaty, member countries signed the ‘Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources’ at Canberra in 1980 which India ratified in 1985. The countries also signed the ‘Protocol on Environmental Protection’ to the Antarctic Treaty (the Madrid Protocol) in 1991, which designates the continent as ‘a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.’

Research stations in Antarctica

Although there is no permanent human habitation in Antarctica, there are over 70 research stations scattered across the region from 29 countries, that are signatories of the Antarctic treaty. These countries are obliged to protect and preserve the well-being of the environment and to cooperate with fellow researchers.

India currently has two operational research stations in Antarctica — Maitri (Commissioned in 1989) and Bharati (Commissioned in 2012). It has also successfully launched 40 annual scientific expeditions to date. With Himadri station in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, above the Arctic circle, India is among the elite set of nations that have multiple research centers in the polar regions.

With a growing number of Indian scientists in Antarctica’s research stations and in accordance with India’s commitment to the Antarctic treaty, the center introduced the Indian Antarctic Bill, 2022.

What is the Indian Antarctic Bill?

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. It confers jurisdiction on Indian courts to deal with crimes and disputes committed by Indian citizens in parts of Antarctica.

“Legislation of such a kind will bind the citizens to the policies of the Antarctic treaty system. This will also be useful in building credibility and enhancing the status of the country globally,” said the Ministry of Earth Sciences.

The bill plans to facilitate India’s involvement in the management of tourism in the Antarctic and the sustainable development of fisheries. It also aims to increase India’s international visibility and credibility in Polar governance for cooperation in scientific studies and logistics.

The Bill plans to set up the Indian Antarctic Authority (IAA) as an apex decision-making authority under the Earth Sciences Ministry, to provide an accountable process for supervision of Antarctic research and expeditions.

“IAA will ensure the protection and preservation of the Antarctic environment, and will ensure compliance by Indian citizens engaged in the Antarctic programs and activities with relevant rules and internationally agreed standards,” the Center said in a statement. IAA will be headed by the secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences and will have members from other relevant ministries.

The Bill prohibits activities that contaminate the Antarctic continent including, nuclear explosion and radioactive waste disposal, introduction of non-sterile soil, and discharge of plastic, garbage and other substance into the sea.

Indian Antarctic Expedition

India’s Antarctic expeditions started in 1981 with a team of 21 scientists and support staff. Thereafter, India launched 40 annual expeditions to the continent and set up the Antarctic Scientific Division and the Antarctic Logistics Division.

India has conducted a wide range of research on topics including the climate process and its connection with climate change, environmental processes and conservation, terrestrial ecosystem, observational research, and polar technology in the Antarctic. The entire Indian Antarctic program is managed by the National Center for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) in Goa.

On November 15, 2021, India launched its latest exploration in the Antarctic with two major programs which aim to explore the link between India and Antarctica in the past and to understand the Antarctic climate.


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