Recently, the Union Minister of Earth Sciences tabled ‘ The Indian Antarctic Bill, 2022’ in the Lok Sabha.
The draft bill is India’s first domestic legislation with regard to Antarctic in India. Already, 27 countries have domestic legislations on Antarctic.
Need for such Legislation –
- The government said an Indian law is necessary to give effect to the Antarctic Treaty (which India signed in 1983), the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources System (which India ratified in 1985) and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (which India signed in 1998).
- India said the law is also need to make national provisions for the protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems and for the regulation of various activities envisaged in Antarctica.
- The Bill now puts into place a comprehensive list of regulations related to Antarctic, for such scientific expeditions, as well as for individuals, companies and tourists.
- While India has been sending expeditions to Antarctic for the past 40 years, these expeditions have been circumscribed by international law.
- Activity in Antarctic is expected to increase in the coming years, making the enforcement of a domestic set of protocols essential.
Provisions of the bill –
- The Bill is a comprehensive document of regulations, particularly keeping in mind environmental protection and the fragile nature of the region.
- Requirement of Permit – No person in an Indian expedition shall enter or remain in Antarctic without a permit or the written authorisation of another party to the Protocol.
- Commercial Fishing – Every country has an allotted quota for commercial fishing in Antarctic. However, India does not carry out commercial fishing in the area. The Bill, in accordance to the Antarctic Treaty, now permits commercial fishing activity for Indians in Antarctic.
- Tourism Activity – Like fishing, while India does not carry out any tourism activity in the region, and very few Indian tourists visit Antarctic, when they do, they do so through foreign tour operators. The Bill now enables Indian tour operators to operate in Antarctic, although, like for commercial fishing, this is circumscribed by strict regulations.
- Environmental Protection – The Bill prohibits drilling, dredging, excavation or collection of mineral resources or even doing anything to identify where such mineral deposits occur — the only exception is for scientific research with a granted permit. The introduction of animals, birds, plants or microscopic organisms that are not native to Antarctica are also prohibited.
- Penal Provisions – A law officer would be appointed to ensure that no unlawful activity takes place in territories occupied by Indian research stations. The draft Bill proposes the setting up of a separate designated court to try crimes committed in Antarctic. The Bill further sets high penal provisions — the lowest penalty comprising an imprisonment between one-two years and a penalty of Rs 10-50 lakh.
India’s involvement in Antarctica –
- India has two active research stations – Maitri (commissioned in 1989) at Schirmacher Hills, and Bharati (commissioned in 2012) at Larsemann Hills in Antarctica. India has successfully launched 40 annual scientific expeditions to Antarctica till date.
- Sagar Nidhi – In 2008, India commissioned the Sagar Nidhi, the pride of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), for research. An ice class vessel, it can cut through thin ice of 40 cm depth and is the first Indian vessel to navigate Antarctic waters.
What is Antarctic Treaty?
- The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington on 1 December 1959 by the twelve countries whose scientists had been active in and around Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58.
- It entered into force in 1961 and has since been acceded to by many other nations.
- The total number of parties to the Treaty is now 54.
- The treaty is remarkably short and contains only 14 articles. It is a legally binding agreement.
- It remains the only example of a single treaty that governs a whole continent.
- The Treaty applies to the area south of 60° South Latitude, including all ice shelves and islands.
- Principal provisions include promoting the freedom of scientific research, the use of the continent only for peaceful purposes, and the prohibition of military activities, nuclear tests and the disposal of radioactive waste.
Key provisions of the Treaty –
- Scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available.
- Among the signatories of the Treaty were seven countries – Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom – with territorial claims , sometimes overlapping. Other countries do not recognise any claims. The US and Russia maintain a “basis of claim”. All positions are explicitly protected in Article IV, which preserves the status quo.
- No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.
- To promote the objectives and ensure the observance of the provisions of the Treaty, “All areas of Antarctica, including all stations, installations and equipment within those areas … shall be open at all times to inspection”.
About the ‘Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty’ –
- India signed the Antarctic Treaty on 19th August 1983 and soon thereafter received consultative status on 12th September 1983.
- The Madrid Protocol was signed by India which came into force on 14th January, 1998.
- The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was signed in Madrid on October 4, 1991 and entered into force in 1998.
- It designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”.
- Principles of the protocol –
- Designates Antarctic as a ‘natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’;
- Establishes environmental principles that must be a fundamental consideration in the planning and conduct of all activities;
- Prohibits mining indefinitely;
- Requires that all proposed activities must be subject to a prior assessment of their environmental impacts;
- Establishes the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), to advice and formulate recommendations to the Antarctic Treaty Parties on implementation of the Protocol;
- Requires the development of contingency plans to respond to environmental emergencies.