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OpinionExplained - Revamping Maitri Station, Indian Antarctica programme at crossroads

Explained – Revamping Maitri Station, Indian Antarctica programme at crossroads

Recently few statements from the Director of the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) in Goa were reported about Indian Antarctic Station Maitri, which has been serving the country since 1989. He said the station is in desperate need of an upgrade, and work is being carried out. He also stressed the immediate requirement to remodel the old station. Further, he said that as per the proposed plan drawn by the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MOES), under whom NCPOR functions, identifying a more favourable and environment-friendly site is underway. Five years earlier, in May 2017, the then Secretary of MOES had declared in a speech in Kolkata that a decision had been taken that Maitri would be replaced in the next 3/4 years (meaning by 2020). Still a few years earlier, after successive structural audits, National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR, recently renamed as NCPOR) had declared a plan to replace Maitri- keeping the existing main building for the summer team, building a new structure for the winter team and reorganising the complex. It was then said that the process for all this, along with a massive cleaning drive for the entire area, had started through a public expression of interest. All this is quite baffling. If it is what he says now that a new site is being identified, then it would take about five years for a new Maitri to come up. 

Still nearly untouched, the continent of Antarctica is known as a global science laboratory. Its unique ecosystem, pristine environment, clean and dry air and massive ice cap storing climate data of millions of years make it an ideal place to study geological sciences, life sciences and physical sciences. The continent is also believed to be home to renewable and non-renewable sources like oil, natural gas, coal, iron ore, manganese, hydrocarbons, freshwater, krill and other marine species as a giant food source. A number of studies and estimates about the potential keep coming out. For example, it is believed that about 500 million tons of krill are eaten every year by all other marine species of the giant food web in the Southern Ocean, and over 90 per cent of the world’s total ice exists in the form of Antarctic ice cap. As per the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC), the continent possesses about 500 BT (billion tons) of oil and 300 to 500 BT of natural gas, and the surrounding Ocean possesses about 135 BT of oil. Tourism is fast developing in recent times. This is more than enough for the competing nations to harbour strategic interests. As of now, however, due to the continent’s total geographical isolation and uniquely harsh environment preventing any normal human inhabitation, nothing except science seems feasible. But conditions may change, and countries worldwide treat Antarctica keeping an eye on possibilities in the future. As of now, while pursuing science, they all prefer establishing an influential and effective presence in Antarctica by maintaining research stations there and waiting for the time of reckoning. It indicates the country’s strategic strength.    

Like the rest of the world, Antarctica is extremely important for India, and so is Indian Antarctic Programme (IAP), with Maitri as its integral part. Building, running and maintaining research stations in Antarctica is quite complex and costly. It requires clear thinking, resource building and competent handling. 

With all this in view, let us see how the continent has evolved, analyse IAP’s four decades of performance, present situation at Maitri and see if IAP’s journey is in line with India’s long term national interests.

Evolving Geology, Geography, Climate, Flora and Fauna of Antarctica 

Despite intense activities by many countries, Antarctica, larger than Europe and Australia, remains the least known among the earth’s seven continents. Today, the original area of seven million sq km of this southernmost island continent has doubled to 14 million sq km due to the enormous ice cap it wears, with thickness ranging from 800 m to 4.8 km. It is divided into a bigger East Antarctica (composed mainly of a high ice-covered plateau) and a smaller West Antarctica, including a long protruding Peninsula (mostly an ice-covering an archipelago of mountains). A unique, harsh and pristine environment has kept it clean and unspoilt, and the continent does not have permanent human habitation.   

As new snow keeps falling, the ice cap thickness increases at the pole. The ice cap then slowly keeps moving from the South Pole to the North in all directions. When it reaches the shore, it goes further and starts floating on the ocean. That floating mass is called an ice shelf. So when one reaches Antarctica, he/she first sees the ice shelf with just 80-90 m of ice shelf out of the water and nine times more in water. As new ice is formed, some ice gets detached from the shelf in the form of ice bergs-thousands of them ranging in size from a few meters to hundreds of km in size. The huge ones take years as they travel North in the ocean to disintegrate completely.

At the South Pole, a brass marker is placed, just outside the Amundsen-Scott station, to indicate the exact geographical position of the South Pole. Due to the movement of the ice cap, this marker is required to be readjusted every year on a given day. It has to be shifted by about 9 meters. With this, one can imagine the speed at which the ice cap moves.

All the natural environmental aspects like geology, geography, climate, life and anthropogenic ones like assisted human presence and system of governance through the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) are truly unique.

As per broadly accepted plate tectonics theory about earth’s evolution process, Antarctica was once part of the supercontinent Pangaea covering most of its land surface. When Pangaea broke up about 220 million years ago (ma), it became the central part of the southern part of Gondwana with Antarctica at the centre and Africa, Australia, the present Indian subcontinent and South America joined from all sides. Over subsequent geological timeline, Gondwana too broke up. All others drifted apart, and Antarctica became an isolated continent in the present geographical dispensation. South America is just a thousand km from the peninsula, and Africa and Australia are about 4500 and 2500 km away from East Antarctica, respectively. To underscore the Indian connection, Austrian geologist Edward Suess coined the term Gondwanaland in the late nineteenth century, after the Gondwana region of central India, meaning in Sanskrit “Forest of the Gonds”, and the name rightly stuck. 

Intense study of a large number of fossilised wood, marine plants, fish, penguins, seals, whales and reptiles over the years indicates that once the climate of Gondwana, with present-day Antarctica at its centre or the keystone as scientists say, was temperate and semi-tropical and deep forests and animals abounded. There is a probability of vast reserves of mineral resources in the continent, as found in its other Gondwana counterparts and oil and gas below the surrounding Southern Ocean. The possibility of exploitation in the future may hold the key to interest from many countries.

First Indian Antarctic Station Dakshin Gangotri totally buried under the Ice
First Indian Antarctic Station Dakshin Gangotri totally buried under the Ice. Image: Special Arrangement

The enormous ice cap leaves only about two per cent of the area free of ice, known as oases areas spread over the continent. As per one theory, the massive weight of this ice cap has depressed the land beneath by about 600 m. If all this ice melts, sea levels worldwide may go up by about 60 m. The total amount of ice calved in the form of icebergs every year contains about 50 per cent of the world’s total freshwater usage. The ice sheet is also the true depository of the evolution process of the earth’s climate. Easily identifiable yearly rings contain precious climate information from millions of years. The ice shelves surrounding the continent, frozen sea extending hundreds of km from the coast, icebergs, very cold weather, winds and blizzards and optical phenomena like Aurora Australis make subjects of fascinating scientific research. Recently observed phenomena like the ozone hole engage intense attention due to its potentially harmful effects on human life in the southern hemisphere and the Giant Food Web in the Southern Ocean. Aspects like climate change and global warming on the Antarctic environment and the impact of the Antarctic environment on the rest of the globe add to the vitally important subjects of research by scientists.  

Even in the forbidding and hostile Antarctic environment, some areas, like dry valleys, cold deserts, saline lakes and exposed rock surfaces on isolated mountains where snow melts in summer, support plant life. The flora includes lichens and mosses and, at the microscopic level, algae, fungi and different forms of bacteria. 

On the other hand, the fauna cannot exist on the continent proper but abounds in the surrounding Southern Ocean. All the organisms live in an envious cycle of interdependence in the classic Indian saying, “जीवो जीवस्य जीवनम!” (means that one living thing is the food of another). Life begins and ends in a process called Giant Food Web which runs unabated like plant nutrients– phytoplankton – zooplankton – krill, sea birds like penguins- seals/ whales – dead plants and animals settling at the bottom of the Ocean – phytoplankton and so on. Overexploitation of renewable resources may also affect global ecological balance, again reflecting complex environmental interdependence.

Discovery of the Continent, Antarctic Treaty System and International Governance

With complete isolation from the rest of the world due to the difficult Southern Ocean and harsh environmental conditions precluding normal flora, fauna and human inhabitation, Antarctica enjoyed obscurity and environmental security for millions of years. Russian Admiral Bellingshausen’s first sitting of the continent in 1820 opened floodgates for individual expeditions for scientific quests and search for riches. Many heroic stories of the bygone times, like the thrilling race between Norwegian Roald Amundsen and British Robert Scott more than a century ago to reach the South Pole, have inspired generations. 

But after governments’ sponsorship entered the exploration, territorial claims as also occasional conflicts between nations followed. Seven countries, namely the UK, Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway, Argentina and Chile, officially laid claims on Antarctic territory between 1908 and 1948. No other country either approves or accepts these claims and countries like the US and Russia, with long traditions of polar exploration, reserved the right to make such claims at the time of their choosing. 

However, colonisation or physical land occupation was not possible, and its realisation led to observing International Geophysical Year (IGY), which focussed on Antarctica. From 1956 to 57, twelve countries, including the nine mentioned above, established sixty stations and considerable scientific research was carried out for eighteen months. IGY’s success and later intense negotiations signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. The Treaty, operational since 1961 after ratification by all, covers a complete area of 60 degrees to 90 degrees South Latitude (that is, South Pole), covering Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean. 

As per the Treaty, peace, science and cooperation are the operational words. During the course of the Treaty, all territorial claims are kept frozen, and no new claims can be made. Anyone can visit any other station. Nuclear operations and waste dumping cannot be done, among other restrictions. Military operations are barred, but military personnel can be used for logistics and other support. 

Over the years, many additional instruments for the protection of wildlife and the environment have been added to the Treaty, including the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) or the Krill Convention for wildlife. Protocol for Environmental Protection, popularly known as Madrid Protocol, has been operative since 1998, prohibiting any form of mining and commercial exploitation. So far, 54 countries covering over 70 per cent of the world’s population have acceded to the Treaty. Out of these, 28 enjoy consultative status and meet yearly in Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM). Unanimous approval is required in these meetings for decisions. Looking into the future, any member country can ask for a review of the Madrid Protocol, including its total prohibition on mining, once the protocol completes 50 years in 2048. It is believed that Russia and China are interested in reviewing this protocol.

Aims and Objectives of the Signatories

Out of all the signatory countries, about 30 have a presence on the continent through research stations. In all, there are over 70 permanent or year-round and seasonal stations together. There are some field camps also. All these figures keep changing. Russia, Argentina, Chile, and China have 7, 5, 4 and 4 stations. America and Australia have three stations each. India is among a few countries with two stations, and some have one station each. Some leading countries have created airstrips. 

As brought out earlier, Antarctica has vast potential for natural resources. As strict binding measures for the protection of the environment and wildlife are in place and military activities, commercial exploration and exploitation are banned, and various instruments like the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and Madrid Protocol are effective, all countries have to concentrate on scientific activities. However, rising temperatures, rapid melting of glacier ice and reduction of fast or sea ice are changing environmental conditions in the continent proper and the Southern Ocean. Because of this, it is felt that commercial exploration and exploitation may just be a matter of time. Who knows what is in store by the end of this century!

Total isolation due to the Southern Ocean and harsh environment make Antarctic logistics very difficult. Just to illustrate, one can imagine the efforts required by all countries to maintain their stations, thousands of km away from them on the Antarctic coast and thousands of km from each other on the continent. Though phenomenal technological advances in aspects like transportation (ships, aircraft, snow vehicles and instruments), structure construction on ice and oasis, equipment and life support systems, communications, food, clothing and medicines have eased conditions to a great extent, logistics remain the main obstacle for creating and maintaining effective and influential position in Antarctica. Only two countries, namely Argentina and Chile, are not as isolated as all others due to their proximity to Antarctic Peninsula. When one considers a country’s presence in Antarctica, logistics capability is of overwhelming importance. Leading countries in Antarctic matters like the US, Russia, UK and Australia have their own developed logistics networks enabling them to establish an effective and influential presence in Antarctica. 

International organisations like Dronning Maud Land Air Network (DROMLAN) and Antarctic Logistics Centre International (ALCI) have also made logistics more flexible, convenient and interdependent for countries that do not have their own logistics networks. 

The story of an American doctor illustrates how logistical capabilities developed over the years help a country. Dr Jerry Nielsen FitzGerald was station doctor at their South Pole Station Amundsen-Scott. In the thick of winter in May 1999, when the weather gets so cold that it turns aircraft fuel to jelly, she found acute symptoms of breast cancer in herself. She trained her welder and other colleagues to help treat herself. With great difficulty, crates of equipment and medicines for chemotherapy and other treatment were airdropped. As there was no respite, finally, an aircraft landed on the South Pole in a daring feat, and she was evacuated. She came back, fully recovered, and lectured worldwide for many years, including five more trips to Antarctica. Then cancer recurred, and she died in 2009 at 57.

Though India and China are both latecomers on the Antarctic scene, both aspire for a leading role in Antarctica like everywhere else, and it would be interesting to see the progress of their journey.

Indian Antarctic Programme (IAP) 

Correctly judging the global political trends, our then Prime Minister, Late Mrs Indira Gandhi, started thinking about Antarctica immediately after the 1971 war victory over Pakistan. Though delayed for a while due to the political upheaval at home, India sent its first expeditions to the continent in 1981 after Mrs Gandhi was back in power. A team of 20 scientists, under the leadership of Dr SZ Qasim, travelled from Goa for a distance of ten and half thousand km in a Norwegian chartered ship called MV Polar Circle and reached Antarctica. They put up a container, stayed in the ice shelf area, carried out scientific experiments for 11 days and returned to Goa from where they had started. The expedition lasted 77 days, from 06 December 1981 to 21 February 1982, and the total distance travelled was about 21 thousand km. Complete secrecy was maintained, and apart from her, no one except her Cabinet Secretary, his deputy and the Foreign Secretary knew about the same. The world was caught by surprise when the Foreign Secretary, Mr RD Sathe, briefed the international community. One leading publication’s tongue-cheek headline said it all “Indians quietly invade Antarctica”. With this, the Indian Antarctic Programme (IAP) started its yearly expeditions in right earnest. Two years later, India was to establish its first permanent station Dakshin Gangotri, in the same area.

Lt Col Dr Jagadish Khadilkar
Lt Col Dr Jagadish Khadilkar was the last Leader and station Commander of India’s first Antarctic Station Dakshin Gangotri from 1988 to 90

India signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1983 and was granted consultative status soon after. Later in the year, during the third expedition, India’s first research station Dakshin Gangotri (DG), was established on the ice shelf. Being on an ice shelf, its life was limited, and after six years of national service, it was totally buried in snow and became extremely dangerous. So it was decommissioned in 1990. The author of this article was the leader and Station Commander at that time. Its second station Maitri, established in 1989, is still functioning. Incidentally, just before her assassination in 1984, Mrs Gandhi had suggested the name Maitri for the second station to be established later. Third station Bharati was established in 2012. It is about 3100 km away on the Antarctic coast on a promontory from Maitri. 

It would be interesting to examine the progress of IAP since its inception in the light of what was expected in the light of the mission mandate displayed in bold brass letters at the entrance of NCPOR in Goa. It reads, “To plan, promote, coordinate and execute the entire gamut of polar science and logistics activities of the country in order to ensure the perceptible and influential presence of India and to uphold India’s strategic interests in the global framework of nations in the southern continent and the surrounding ocean”.

Three equally important aspects need to be examined-scientific activities, logistics and India’s strategic interests. What India has done about its contribution to science can be debated in a separate article. On the logistics front, however, it can be said that the country has fared very poorly so far. Initially, India had no polar know-how, so the first station Dakshin Gangotri (DG), was imported from the UK and was built by Indian Army personnel. A few years later second station Maitri was designed and constructed entirely by the Indian Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) in Pune. 

In its initial years, like all other leading countries, India used its armed forces personnel to handle logistics, army personnel for maintenance of the station and Air Force and Navy personnel for helicopters and communication. The life of the imported snow vehicles’ was extended by overhauling in Army Base Workshop. It was a good beginning to create our own self-reliant logistics system and build institutional competence within the country. Reasons are unknown, but soon all these associations ceased to exist. 

Leave aside from making efforts to build more stations, own ice breakers, airstrips and other major measures in line with leading Antarctic countries; India started depending on ships, air transportation, helicopters, vehicles, and other logistics needs from outside agencies through chartering and imports. Maybe it was easy but bad for the country striving for self-reliance and global prominence. For the third station Bharati, instead of building on the experience and expertise gained from Maitri, NCPOR went for importing the station from Germany. 

The importance of self-reliance, particularly in Antarctic matters, needs no overemphasising! In the intensely competitive world, India needs its own developed logistics network in the long run, and it takes a long time to build one. It needs its ice breakers, supply ships, airstrips on ice, suitable aircraft and helicopters, snow vehicles and other major and minor equipment. All this takes budget and focused efforts over a long time. But when done, the country becomes strong. If you are strong and sustain yourself in polar areas, you are strong anywhere. 

Developing a logistics network on its own has an off-shoot for any country, and India is no exception. In providing all logistics support, while Army would just enhance its existing capabilities, the Navy and the Air Force would have tremendous scope to take their capabilities to new heights. A classic case of Antarctic logistics as an operation of war where adversaries would be the harsh environment and the difficult Southern Ocean thousands of km away! Just imagine the scenario in which the armed forces would welcome with both hands.

In short, if India seriously wishes to establish an influential and effective Antarctic presence and have a say at the time of reckoning, it must have at least four research stations in Antarctica, well thought out scientific research plans and a well-developed logistics network of its own. Writing a mission mandate in brass letters is easy, but an effective and influential presence in Antarctica would not be.

One can discuss the Antarctic programmes of established countries at length. Some have been associated with polar exploration for over two centuries and are now strategically well placed. Having taken care of logistics and their strategic interests over a long time, they can now concentrate solely on scientific aspects and preach to others. However, countries like India and China require coming up to their level of involvement and expertise by making all-around progress. We have seen India’s position, and it would be interesting to see how China fares in comparison.

China’s Antarctic Programme   

China entered the continent just a year after India but has progressed extremely well. Some of the points which totally distinguish its Antarctic programme from the IAP are interesting to note. These points should open the eyes of the concerned.

China has always treated Antarctic Programme as one of the top national priorities since the 1980s. Their five years plans always made special references to polar activities. Their Belt and Road Initiative and Polar Silk Road had both polar areas in focus. With their use of the vertical global map, they have demonstrated their intention to bring Antarctica and the Arctic to the centre of global activities. A prominent comment, “Hardly a spot remains on the planet-and off- that China does not consider up for grabs and that includes North and the South Poles”, rightly sums up their wishes in global affairs. Over the years Chinese Ministry of Land resources has created a network of institutes to cater for various Antarctic aspects. While they emphasise research aspects while dealing with the international community, their domestic message refers to future likely opportunities for exploiting natural resources in the continent. Different meanings of what is said in English and Chinese are often reported in the press. After he assumed power, Jin Ping demonstrated his priority for an effective Chinese presence in Antarctica while seeing off the Chinese expedition from Hobart (Tasmania) in November 2014 with the then Australian Prime Minister by his side.  

Despite snow clearance for Antarctic stations on ice like Dakshin Gangotri, they eventually get buried and have to be abandoned
Despite snow clearance for Antarctic stations on ice like Dakshin Gangotri, they eventually get buried and have to be abandoned. Image: Special arrangement

Starting with their first station, The Great Wall of China, in 1985, China has built three more stations in Antarctica-Zhongshan, Taishan and Kunlun. The last-named is situated near the highest point in East Antarctica, known as Dome “A”, which would give them unique opportunities in hitherto untouched territories. Their fifth station (still unnamed) is likely to be built soon. All these stations are indigenously made and offer a wide variety of scientific research opportunities. To do this on its own manifests China’s vastly improved logistics capability and future intentions. 

Over the years, China first acquired an ice breaker from Ukraine and then has built one of its own. Shortly their third ice breaker will be made. They have few supply ships in the Southern Ocean. They have made a special squadron of aircraft for Antarctic operations. China has made two ice airstrips. They have made self-reliance in Antarctic logistics their priority. In all these activities, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plays a huge role. It does not depend on any of its logistics on international organisations like Dronning Maud Land Air Network Project (DROMLAN), on whom India relies. China has made a pact with Australia for mutual help. 

A few years ago, when Brazil’s Antarctic station was destroyed in a fire, they turned to China to build one for them. When a Russian ship was stuck in heavy ice in the Southern Ocean, the Chinese ice breaker was the first to reach them for help. Such activities boost their status in Antarctica.

Regarding Chinese scientific activities, though quantity is huge, quality still seems to be mediocre, but they are rapidly improving. 

A few years ago, Antarctic awareness in China was as poor as in India, but by massive programmes of lectures, the association of universities, promotion of tourism and propaganda typical in a totalitarian state, they are speedily marching ahead. With four stations and forays into new territories, they have named 359 new sites in Antarctica with Chinese names. Indian named new sites may still be in a few tens at the most!

In just ten years of Jin Ping, China has moved from a minor Antarctic player like India to a major Antarctic actor. With an ever-increasing budget and ambitious projects, it may soon surpass US and Russia as the most prominent Antarctic nation.

So what does India needs to do?

Starting polar journey together, today, while India still remains a minor polar power, China has gone ahead by miles. To remedy the situation, India would do well to lay down a polar doctrine, keeping long term global scenarios and its strategic interests at the earliest, and its planned execution to be a major polar power.   

There is an acute need for the country to leave the present parochial approach that Antarctica is only about some scientific activities and nothing else. Other countries’ Antarctic programmes with special reference to China should be studied and understood. NCPOR may freshly look at the Indian Antarctic Programme to see if it reflects its mission mandate. 

Replacing the Maitri station 100 per cent indigenously may be a good beginning towards self-reliance in Antarctica.

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