India must protect its own ‘Antarcticas’ too

Like a shower of unexpected rain in summer, or incredibly clean morning air in a Delhi winter, we have with us a most wholesome enactment.

I read news of The Indian Antarctic Bill, 2022, with surprised happiness. Its vision and commitment to protecting the plant’s most precious natural legacy — the earth’s fifth largest continent, nearly twice the size of Australia, almost wholly covered by thick, “living” ice, through regulatory provisions, including punitive ones, are exemplary.

The intent of the stringent bill introduced in the Lok Sabha during the last session is as broad as can be: Protecting Planet Earth from the action of earthlings.

Let me escape into imagination: The krill, penguins, petrels, cormorants, gulls, whales and fur seals living on or around it perhaps met in emergency conclave on an icy height in what we would call January 1912, not long after they saw some four or five hominid led by several canid keep steadily on a path to their ice home’s very centre — the South Pole, to be followed not many days later by another group of the same life-form, this time mounted on several specimens of equid. They did not know — could not have known or understood — that leading the first set was the first human — Roald Amundsen of Norway — to reach the South Pole. And leading the second set was Robert Scott of Great Britain, who did not go back, the Britons and their steeds stayed there, turning from pulsating life to frozen death in the ice-sheets.

“We the people of Antarctica,” the icizens probably said, “having solemnly resolved to constitute ourselves into a sovereign ice-bound, ice-loving, ice-protecting republic and to secure to all of us, its icizens: Justice, glacial, ecologic and meteorological; liberty of residence in peace, movement in confidence and everlasting fellowship; equality in the ownership, use and conservation of our legacy; and to promote among us all iciternity assuring the safety of the individual and the integrity of our station; in our environment assembly this twenty-sixth day of January, 1912, do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this resolution”.

In a subordinate enactment, the assembly perhaps said that all lesser icizens, smaller life-forms such as sea cucumbers, free-swimming snails, fungi would receive by right, by entitlement, exactly identical freedoms. And breathing beneath the icizens, icedom itself with a heartbeat only its diamond casements knew, blessed the icizens’ resolve to protect themselves, protected icedom also.

But their resolution reckoned without the earth’s great citizen — the hominid — and his total hegemonic sway over the planet.

As of today, 54 State Parties are in a pact, called the Antarctic Treaty, of whom 29 countries have the status of consultative party with a right to vote in the Antarctic consultative meetings and 25 countries are non-consultative parties, having no right to vote. So, some of us who got there earlier than others, can consult and vote on how to and how not to use the wedges of Antarctica that come under their sphere of usage. And some others can do so without the right to vote.

India is among the first group.

All the State Parties have resolved to strive for the protection and preservation of the Antarctic environment and, in particular, for the preservation and conservation of marine living resources in Antarctica.

This is a self-regulating resolve. And all are committed to using their presence on the icedom for advancing scientific research for the benefit of humankind. But are all the State Parties free of doubts as to each other’s intentions? Not so, whence the need “for the regulation of various activities envisaged in Antarctica and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”

And whence, too, our bill.

Its study by all those interested in the protection of our planet’s ecological integrity is a must. Support to it is a must by all in Parliament and in civil society.

But, the bill needs to be contextualised in our minds, not as a step towards reforming human control over Antarctica, like the Minto-Morley Reforms (1909) and Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms (1919) “reformed” the British Raj’s domination over India, but as a Declaration of Antarctic Rights over Antarctica. In other words, for the sake of Antarctica and, thereby, for the sake of the Earth.

The fires of our insatiable appetites burn the air above our continents. The fire of our insatiable appetite for scientific knowledge should not burn the one continent that burns no fires of its own and, in fact, extends a line of life to the rest of the earth.

No Antarctica, and we, earthlings will go down as imperialists who killed what they sought to be masters of and — themselves.

By enacting this The Indian Antarctic Bill, India gives itself the moral right to tell the world that its policy towards the earth’s only non-human continent should be: Respectful distance.

It also gives to itself the ecological duty to protect the ecosystems, “Antarcticas” of its own, such as the fragile ecosystems of the Himalayas, the tropical forests in our Western Ghats and the coral-reefs around the Rann of Kutch, the Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Antarctica is now more than a continent in danger; it is a metaphor for the breath of life.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor The views expressed are personal

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