Explained: Indian Antarctic Bill presented to Lok Sabha

Almost 40 years after India first signed the Antarctic Treaty, the government has introduced the Indian Antarctica Bill, 2020. Minister of Earth Sciences, Dr Jitender Singh tabled the bill in Lok Sabha Friday.

What is the Antarctic Bill?

The bill is India’s first national Antarctic legislation.

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Twenty-seven countries including Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Russian Federation, Africa South, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States of America, Uruguay and Venezuela already have national Antarctic legislation. Many others, like India, are following suit.

While India has been sending expeditions to Antarctica for 40 years, these expeditions have been circumscribed by international law. The bill now puts in place a comprehensive list of regulations relating to Antarctica, for such scientific expeditions, as well as for individuals, businesses and tourists.

The ministry explained that it expects activity in Antarctica to increase in the coming years, making the application of a set of national protocols essential.

National legislation will strengthen the validity of the Antarctic Treaty and subsequent protocols, to which India is a signatory.

The most important part of the bill extends the jurisdiction of Indian courts to Antarctica, for crimes committed on the continent by Indian citizens or foreign citizens on Indian expeditions. Until now, there was no recourse for crimes committed during an expedition, including crimes against the environment.

What is the Antarctic Treaty?

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 by 12 countries – Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, French Republic, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Union of South Africa, USSR, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America, and came into force in 1961.

The Treaty covers the area south of 60°S latitude.

The objectives of the treaty are to demilitarize Antarctica and make it an area used for peaceful research activities and to set aside any disputes over territorial sovereignty, thereby ensuring international cooperation.

Currently, 54 nations are signatories to the Antarctic Treaty, but only 29 nations are eligible to vote at Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings – this includes India.

India signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1983 and received consultative status the same year.

The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was established in 1980 for the protection and preservation of the Antarctic environment and, in particular, for the preservation and conservation living marine resources of Antarctica.

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1991 and entered into force in 1998. It designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, dedicated to peace and science”.

What are the main provisions of the bill?

Although the most important provision of the bill remains the extension of the jurisdiction of Indian courts to Antarctica, as well as the investigation and trial of crimes committed on the Arctic continent, the bill is a document comprehensive regulation, which takes particular account of the protection of the environment and the fragile character of the region.

The bill introduces an elaborate system of permits for any expedition or individual wishing to visit the continent. These permits will be issued by a committee to be set up by the government. The Committee will include the Secretary of the Department of Earth Sciences and will also include officials from Defence, Department of External Affairs, Finance, Fisheries, Legal Affairs, Science and Technology, Merchant Navy , Tourism, Environment, Communication and Space Ministries as well as a member of the National Center for Polar and Oceanic Research and National Security Council Secretariat and Antarctic experts.

Permits may be revoked by the Committee if deficiencies are found or if illegal activities are detected.

Although India does not practice commercial fishing in the area, since each country has an allocated quota, the bill now provides for this activity. However, strict guidelines are in place in accordance with international law.

Like fishing, while India has no tourism activity in the region, and very few Indian tourists visit Antarctica, when they do, they do so through foreign tour operators. Antarctica receives a number of tourists from foreign countries. The bill now allows Indian tour operators to operate in Antarctica, although, as with commercial fishing, this is subject to strict regulations.

The bill further establishes elaborate standards for environmental protection as well as waste management.

What are the prohibitions?

The bill prohibits the drilling, dredging, excavation or collection of mineral resources or even doing anything to identify where such mineral deposits are – the only exception is for scientific research with a permit granted .

Damaging native plants, flying or landing helicopters or operating vessels that may disturb birds and seals, using firearms that may disturb birds and animals, removing soil or any biological material native to Antarctica, engaging in any activity likely to harm the habitat of birds and animals, killing, injuring or capturing any bird or animal is strictly prohibited.

The introduction of animals, birds, plants or microscopic organisms that are not native to Antarctica is also prohibited. The extraction of species for scientific research purposes must be carried out by means of a permit. The central government can also appoint an agent to carry out inspections.

What is the penalty system in place?

The bill proposes the creation of a separate designated court to try crimes committed in Antarctica.

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The bill further lays down high penal provisions – the lowest penalty comprising a jail term of one to two years and a penalty of Rs 10 to 50 lakh. Mining any species native to Antarctica or introducing an alien species to the continent can result in a prison term of seven years and a fine of Rs 50 lakh.

For the dumping of nuclear waste or a nuclear explosion, the imprisonment can range from 20 years to life imprisonment with a fine of Rs 50 crore.

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