The Arctic Policy, currently released in a draft format publicly to invite feedback before January 26th, outlines plans for science and research activities; economic and human development cooperation; transportation and connectivity; governance and international cooperation; and national capacity building.
India is seeking the policy to strengthen its presence in the region. The Government writes “the importance of the Arctic for India is constantly growing, primarily due to the challenges associated with climate change and global warming. India was accorded the status of an Observer to the Arctic Council in 2013, one of the thirteen countries in the world to have done so. The fact that this status was renewed in 2018 reflects India’s contribution to Arctic studies and research.”
Indeed, whilst India’s storied relations with the Arctic region date back to 1920, 2013 did represent the pivotal moment of securing permanent observer status – with the renewal in 2018 underscoring the significance of this. Since receiving permanent observer status, Indian activity in the region has focused predominantly on scientific interest.
The Arctic Policy states that “India seeks to play a constructive role in the Arctic by leveraging its vast scientific pool and expertise in Himalayan and Polar research. India would also like to contribute in ensuring that as the Arctic becomes more accessible, the harnessing of its resources is done sustainably and in consonance with best practices formulated by bodies such as the Arctic Council.”
As part of the Arctic Policy, India states its intention to better understand and work to address climate change challenges. These intentions are summarised by six different pillars. These include research into ecosystems and preservation of Arctic biodiversity; improving modeling systems used to predict climate and weather; encouraging research that aligns with international Arctic priorities; collaborating with forums such as the Arctic Council’s Short-Lived Climate Pollutants Expert Group to seek solutions; engaging with the Emergency Preparedness, Prevention and Response Working Group of the Arctic Council to contribute towards environmental emergencies; ensuring that Indian enterprises follow high environmental standards; and contributing towards environmental management in the Arctic.
Why the Arctic Policy matters to India
The importance of climate change specifically relates back to India in a multitude of ways. Of those mentioned in the Arctic Policy, response mechanisms impacting weather conditions and monsoon patterns remain of pressing importance. Research has shown that salinity changes in the Bay of Bengal impact both the Indian monsoon and Arctic temperature changes. When salinity is high in the Bay of Bengal, corresponding warm events are found to occur in the Arctic, as documented by the Greenland ice core record.
The same has been found with the Arctic’s impact on Indian’s monsoon which play a fundamental role in farming and growth. The net impact of greater variability in monsoon rainfall from year to year is a greater range between flood and drought conditions, both of which could be more severe for a country that relies on the monsoons for agriculture, drinking water, industry, and even energy through hydroelectricity.
Secondly, and of no less importance, is the prospect of sea-level rise due to the melting of the Arctic ice caps. Research has shown that the impact of climate change is now seeing Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.1 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average. This issue also comes in conjunction with the Himalayan glaciers, also known as the Third Pole.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere recognised the inextricable link between the Arctic and the Himalayas. This is something of clear importance with the Arctic Policy noting that they are “endowed with the largest freshwater reserves in the world outside the geographic poles,” clearly posing another challenge to rising sea levels.
Yet, as important as the impact of this is on sea-level rise for the global fight on climate change, India’s position means it is particularly susceptible. Climate displacement would be a serious threat to the lives of millions across different cities. Predictions of 2050 using a variation of climate models have also shown part of India’s financial capital Mumbai could be inundated.
The broader environment picture encompasses a range of challenges such as micro-plastic, marine litter, and pollutants. The importance of addressing cryospheric and climatological linkages between India and the Arctic remains of high importance for a country highly vulnerable to climate-exacerbated shocks that are dramatically costing the country – in rupees and in lives.