New Delhi: Even as the general election was on in May, India quietly staked claim to nearly half a million sq. km of seabed that contains potentially large reserves of oil, minerals, metals and gas hydrates.
In the next few weeks, it’s likely to vie for another half a million sq. km, some of which may conflict with a similar claim by Sri Lanka on the unmarked seabed.
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The claims arise from an international, United Nations (UN)-facilitated agreement that allows a coastal country to stake claim over seabed that extends beyond its exclusive economic zone.
To do so, the country has to prove that the seabed is part of its continental shelf, defined as a continuous sloping chunk of rock that connects the seafloor and the mainland.
Currently, a country is allowed rights to mine waters within 200 nautical miles (322km) of its coastline.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), as the agreement is called, allows nations to extend their claims to a maximum of 150 miles more.
On 12 May, India staked claim to large swathes of seabed under the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, which a government scientist involved with the survey process pegged at “approximately 0.6 million sq. km of continental shelf”.
Though a perusal of maps indicating seabed area claimed by Pakistan and Sri Lanka indicates no conflict with India, it’s India’s second claim, expected later this month, that can fall foul of Sri Lanka.
That’s because some regions that India will claim will include portions already claimed by Sri Lanka.
A scientist affiliated to the ministry of earth sciences said the “disputed” region was likely to be a stretch of seabed to the west of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Though he didn’t identify the exact region involved, he said this was a “major” chunk of the remaining 0.6 million sq. km India is looking to claim.
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Preparing India’s claim was part of a mammoth, five-year exercise that primarily involved research organizations under the ministry of earth sciences, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) in Hyderabad, and the Geological Survey of India.
This included surveys of the deep ocean, estimating land depths as well as gauging the economic wealth within the ocean.
“We’ve never had an economic estimate of the wealth in our seas, but these surveys have given us a good idea of which regions to look for, say, gas hydrates or other hydrocarbons,” said Shailesh Naik, secretary, ministry of earth sciences.
Gas hydrates are crystalline solids consisting of gas molecules, usually methane, each surrounded by a cage of water molecules, akin to ice.
Methane hydrates are stable in ocean floor sediments at water depths greater than 300m, and where they occur, they are known to cement loose sediments in a surface layer several hundred metres thick.
Extracting this gas, may lead to tapping a new source of energy.
Spokespersons from India’s ministry of external affairs—who formally submitted India’s claim—and Sri Lanka’s ministry of foreign affairs didn’t respond to emails and repeated calls seeking comment.
There are no immediate gains from the exercise. In fact, India’s submission to the UN is unlikely to be considered before May, according to the Unclos website.
Any resulting disputes must either be settled bilaterally or be taken to the International Seabed Authority, a UN-constituted body that rules on mining rights in the oceans.
“Typically, if there are regions common to both countries, the UN’s International Court of Justice at the Hague or a tribunal makes a decision, and in many cases countries fix a line equidistant from their shores,” said M. Ravindran, former director at the National Institute of Ocean Technology (Niot) in Chennai. Niot has been involved in some of the surveys to determine continental shelf depths.
India, which ratified Unclos in 1995, had a 13 May deadline by which it was to submit its bid. But it chose to submit only part of its bid, citing a caveat in the UN agreement to do so. “Since we are part of a group of countries in the southern Bay of Bengal, we are allowed a two-part submission,” said the government official.
Though the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea may not have as copious oil reserves as the Arctic Circle, where a host of countries from Russia to Denmark are staking claim under the same UN treaty, India has an ongoing programme to tap gas hydrates—a major component of untapped seabed wealth.
The National Gas Hydrate Programme was started in 1997 by the petroleum ministry along with Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd, GAIL (India) Ltd, Oil India Ltd, Directorate General of Hydrocarbons (DGH), department of ocean development, the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) in Goa and NGRI.
In 2000, DGH became the technical coordinator of the programme, and through a scientific cooperation programme with the US, acquired core samples of gas hydrates.
After the US and Japan, India is the third country in the world to have done this. Scientists, however, are cautious about the prospect of extracting methane from gas hydrates.
“I would not be able to tell you India’s commercial potential yet, because a lot more research has to be done. Very few expeditions have been undertaken yet,” said M.V. Ramana, a scientist at NIO who is involved with the gas hydrates initiative.
“It’s all about our future strategy. Only if we try securing these regions now can we expect gains from the ocean in the coming decades,” Ramana added.
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint