The Indian Antarctic Bill

Source: By Esha Roy: The Indian Express

Nearly 40 years after India first signed the Antarctic Treaty, the government has brought in a draft Indian Antarctic Bill, 2020. Earth Sciences Minister Dr Jitender Singh tabled the draft Bill in Lok Sabha on 1 April 2022.

What is the Antarctica Bill?

The draft bill is the first domestic legislation with regard to Antarctica in India.

Twenty-seven countries including Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States of America, Uruguay and Venezuela already have domestic legislations on Antarctica. Many others, such as India, are now following suit.

While India has been sending expeditions to Antarctica for the past 40 years, these expeditions have been circumscribed by international law. The Bill now puts into place a comprehensive list of regulations related to Antarctica, for such scientific expeditions, as well as for individuals, companies and tourists.

The Ministry has explained that it expects activity in Antarctica to increase in the coming years, making the enforcement of a domestic set of protocols essential. A domestic legislation will further provide more validity to the Antarctic Treaty, and subsequent protocols, of which India is a signatory.

The most significant part of the Bill is extending the jurisdiction of Indian courts to Antarctica, for crimes on the continent by Indian citizens, or foreign citizens who are a part of Indian expeditions. So far there was no recourse for crimes committed during an expedition, including crimes against the environment.

What is the Antarctica 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, the UK of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the US 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 establish it as a zone used for peaceful research activities and to set aside any disputes regarding territorial sovereignty, thereby ensuring international cooperation.

Currently, 54 nations are signatories to the Antarctic Treaty, but only 29 nations have a right to vote at the 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 set up in 1980 for the protection and preservation of the Antarctic environment and, in particular, for the preservation and conservation of marine living resources in Antarctica.

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

What are the main provisions of the Bill?

While the most significant provision of the Bill remains the extending of jurisdiction of Indian courts to Antarctica, and the investigation and trial for crimes committed on the Arctic continent, the Bill is a comprehensive document of regulations, particularly keeping in mind environmental protection and the fragile nature of the region.

The Bill introduces an elaborate permit system for any expedition or individual who wishes to visit the continent. These permits will be issued by a Committee that will be set up by the government. The Committee will comprise of the Secretary Earth Sciences ministry and will also have officials from Defence, Ministry of External Affairs, Finance, Fisheries, Legal Affairs, Science and Technology, Shipping, Tourism, Environment, Communication and Space ministries along with a member from the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research and National Security Council Secretariat and experts on Antarctica.

The permits can be cancelled by the Committee if deficiencies are found or activities in contravention of the law are detected.

While India does not carry out commercial fishing in the area, since every country has an allotted quota, the Bill now provides for this activity. However, strict guidelines are in place in accordance with international law.

Like fishing, while India does not carry out any 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 enables Indian tour operators to operate in Antarctica, although, like for commercial fishing, this is circumscribed by strict regulations. The Bill further enlists elaborate standards for environmental protection as well as waste management.

What are the prohibitions?

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.

Damaging of native plants, flying or landing helicopters or operating vessels that could disturb birds and seals, using firearms that could disturb the birds and animals, remove soil or any biological material native to Antarctica, engage in any activity that could adversely change the habitat of birds and animals, kill, injure or capture any bird or animal have been strictly prohibited.

The introduction of animals, birds, plants or microscopic organisms that are not native to Antarctica are also prohibited. Extraction of species for scientific research needs to be done through a permit. The central government can also appoint an officer to carry out inspections.

What is the penalty system that has been introduced?

The draft Bill proposes the setting up of a separate designated court to try crimes committed in Antarctica.

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. Extraction of any species native to Antarctica, or introduction of an exotic species to the continent can draw imprisonment of seven years and a fine of Rs 50 lakh.

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