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The weekend read: India joins race for the Arctic

In conversation with Vijay Sakhuja, India's leading Arctic expert

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Lou Del Bello

Jan 10 2021

7 mins read

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Welcome to this weekend’s edition of Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories and exclusive intel on energy and climate change in South Asia.

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Image Credit - Peter Cornelissen

It was during a stroll by the lake in the northern Norwegian city of Tromsø, that Vijay Sakhuja first felt a deep, personal connection to the Arctic. It was almost 20 years ago, but Sakhuja, a pioneer of Arctic studies in India who spent 26 years in the Navy while pursuing academia, remembers that moment as if it was yesterday. There was something unique to that corner, he says, be it the sky so clear or the snow enveloping the city. “I stepped on the frozen lake, and walked on it. It was simply a fantastic experience and I understood what [my work] was all about.”

While until then his interest in climate change and the region had been mostly theoretical, something in him changed when he witnessed the ephemeral nature of that landscape, and the vulnerability of its environment and culture. He snapped a photo. Years later, that image became the jacket cover of his book.

As India prepares to become more involved in Arctic development with a new policy soon to be launched, Sakhuja talks about why the polar region matters to a tropical country, and what India can bring to the table.

Why is India interested in the Arctic, and why does it need a new policy specifically for this?

India is not part of the circuit of the Arctic Council, but we have done some work in the past, and at the time we already wanted to be part of the conversation. For example, during my time in the Navy, we sent out vessels to support various missions, delivering equipment and dealing with logistics. And my discussions with the Ministry of External Affairs [always] suggested that India’s main interest remains in scientific cooperation, technology and environmental issues.

But we also acknowledge that the Arctic is changing, a new northern sea route is shaping up, and by 2025 the volume of trade is also projected to grow...

And India wants to make sure it doesn’t miss out on this new opportunity. But what’s notable about this new policy specifically?

I find it is a forward-looking document, it describes clear areas of interests ranging from science to financial investments, and it sets out deliverables. Most of the time the problem with Indian policies is with that aspect: what are we going to do? How are we going to do it?

[The policy includes] development issues, climate and environmental issues. And there's of course, the technology issue, in terms of what we can bring on the table. [With this policy] we are not taking away anything. But we want to give.

What is India’s pitch to the Arctic countries? What would it bring to the table?

We can contribute through intellectual capital, scientific knowledge and critical human resources, as well as of course investments. For example, we would be offering metrological services, space capabilities and hydrographic services such as chart making, although our specialised vessels for hydrographic surveys are better suited to warm waters. But we could supply highly trained personnel to help with the development of green shipping.

Let me explain our vision with a comparison. A few days ago, the US launched their ‘blue strategy’ for the Arctic, where they focus on the geopolitical and geostrategic interests [of an ice-free Arctic]. At its core, this is a competitive strategy. I would call India’s mission “white Arctic policy”, we want the region to remain white [and develop it sustainably].

Despite the Arctic countries’ best efforts, climate change is fast turning the region blue. But why does India, with its tropical climate, have skin in the game? 

There is a direct corridor which runs from the North Pole to the Himalayan mountains. If the Arctic winds are warmer or not chilled enough, this will impact the Himalayas.

If [the climate changes] in the Arctic region and in turn Siberia warms up, this is going to impact the Himalayas on the Chinese side. And any change there will affect the glaciers on the Indian side too. This is something we don’t talk about enough, but the impacts of a warming Arctic are far reaching - they touch Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, I would go as far as to say Myanmar.

And when there is a connection of this nature, of course the consequences of such environmental changes will be felt by the communities living across all the affected areas, particularly indigenous people.

The policy draft does mention indigenous people, acknowledging that they are at the forefront of similar challenges in the two regions. How significant is this?

I was very happy to see that reference in the policy document, I think there is great potential for dialogue. Over years of work and research, I learned to appreciate how the people of the Nordic countries and our people who live in the mountains have a lot in common. How they manage their ecosystems and their livelihoods, how they preserve their own environment. In this respect, it’s significant that the Himalayas are also known as the Third Pole.

It looks like India wants to focus on sustainable development and climate change - but how does this square with mining ambitions and the exploitation of natural resources which are also referenced in the document?

If I had to interpret this policy’s agenda I would say science comes first, with climate change and environment-based technologies. Governance and international cooperation are also very important, while mineral resources and transportation would come rock bottom.

In terms of fossil fuels, what India has probably in mind is gas. At the moment this makes sense because we are an energy-hungry country, and we cannot deny we need more of it. But I also assume that in a few years, although energy demand will increase, we will have access to alternative sources of energy, which will take precedence. And considering that policies tend to look 10 to 15 years forward, India is probably taking this trend into account.

The policy is still in draft form, and is open to feedback until the end of this month. Is there anything you feel is still missing?

The Arctic region is a treasure trove of data. Everything in the region, from environmental research to mineral exploration carries unique scientific insights. We can even learn by studying shipping routes and other services. And as we stride towards a fourth industrial revolution, technologies such as artificial intelligence will make use of this wealth of information. The Arctic will become a very important data centre, helping us harness technologies such as robots, UVS for search and rescue missions, and much more. I hope the government will take an interest in this aspect.

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