India’s Arctic activities have come on the back of its successful scientific and diplomatic endeavours in Antarctica, the southernmost frozen continent. Closer home, the Hindu-Kush Himalaya mountains, referred to as the Third Pole, with maximum snow and ice accumulation outside the two polar regions, is a critical water store for socio-economic development in India and its neighbourhood.
The three poles — the Arctic, Antarctic and the Himalayas — with their breathtaking landscape and permafrost ecosystem are connected through risks and vulnerabilities of changing climate systems and are an intricate part of the global commons. The physical changes in the Arctic are highly likely to impact the Indian monsoon or “tele-connection” as it is described. Likewise, the emissions from the Gangetic plains partly explain the black carbon events witnessed recently in the Arctic.
But what skips our imagination is that India is a tri-polar nation, both in terms of its multi-level scientific engagement vis-à-vis the Antarctic Treaty System and the Arctic Council, and its commitment to mitigating climate risks in its neighbourhood. India would do well to leverage the tri-polar geographical expression in its diplomacy, given its own climate vulnerability and its efforts to foster climate-resilient economic development.
In fact, the intersection of science and diplomacy, as seen in India’s vaccine outreach, and the soft power projection that India has tried to assiduously build into its foreign policy makes the Arctic an important area to engage in. But unlike the Antarctic, where the legacy of peace and science prevails, the Arctic has politico-strategic challenges and competitive economic and commercial interests with 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and 30% of undiscovered natural gas resources. Vast deposits of strategic metals have also been discovered. As the ice extent declines due to global warming, navigation in the Arctic Ocean will become significantly wider with the potential to become the world’s largest logistics intersections.
The opening up of the Arctic in terms of economic opportunity is in India’s interest, but has to be carefully weighed. Rather than engaging in a resource rush, it would be better to draw home new investments in clean energy from the Arctic states. The year 2021 is estimated to be the first time renewable energy will surpass oil and gas as the largest area of spending in the energy sector. India has, over the last five years, built a positive climate image, often stating that its development trajectory will be increasingly green.
The Arctic emphasis, thus, should continue to be one of scientific enterprise with efforts to build India’s knowledge profile. Expanding its scientific footprint will certainly require a state-of-the-art polar research vessel. Joint projects on polar research should become part of the bilateral arrangement with the Arctic states such as Russia and Canada. There is already abiding polar science cooperation with the Norwegian Polar Institute.
Coincidentally, India and Norway are currently in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It is a unique opportunity for the two to align, “human-centric and inclusive solutions”, as India describes its tenure in UNSC, to the impact of the climate crisis on peace and security that Norway desires to raise.
For India, the Arctic has a deep civilisational connect. It enshrines a consciousness of human social evolution as a response to the physical environment as Bal Gangadhar Tilak expressed in his work, The Arctic Home in the Vedas (1903). Celebrating international yoga day among the scientists in Ny-Alesund on June 21, the day of the summer solstice, will be a mark of diplomatic symbolism in the High North.
Uttam Kumar Sinha works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
The views expressed are personal