New Delhi: India’s claim over 300,000 sq. km of seabed in the Bay of Bengal that could potentially have large hydrocarbon reserves is being disputed by its eastern neighbours Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Myanmar, in a 4 August letter to the United Nations (UN), has complained that India has unilaterally extended the maritime boundary between the two countries, contravening a 1986 bilateral agreement. A copy of the letter is available on the UN website.
The maritime boundary between nations is an important reference point for establishing claims over untapped oil and gas, and mineral wealth in continental shelves.
Graphics: Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 18 June said that her government was also planning to contest India’s and Myanmar’s claims to the extended continental shelf. This was reported in the Daily Star, a local English newspaper.
A continental shelf is the relatively shallow seabed surrounding a continent that could, in many instances, extend beyond a country’s exclusive economic zone, defined by the UN as a sea area within 200 nautical miles (360km) from the shore.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) permits countries to claim continental shelf regions beyond the exclusive economic zone (giving exclusive fishing and mining rights), provided they can back it up with scientific data. 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. The scientist asked not to be identified.
Mint on 12 June reported that India’s claim was likely to also conflict with regions claimed by Sri Lanka as its own, quoting top government officials involved in the process.
India’s external affairs ministry is likely to enter into bilateral discussions with these countries and resolve the contentious issues, rather than wait for the UN to take a call, said an official at the ministry of earth sciences, which was involved in conducting surveys and technically establishing the extent of India’s continental shelf.
“Every country is going to be ambitious with its claims. There are obviously regions that may be common to countries, but the way out is to draw a median line and suitably apportion them,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Spokespersons from the ministry of external affairs—which submitted India’s claim—and Myanmar’s high commission in New Delhi didn’t respond to emails and repeated calls seeking comment.
Though the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea may not have as copious oil reserves as the Arctic circle, where a number of countries, from Russia to Denmark, are staking claim under the UN treaty, India has a programme to tap gas hydrates, which is seen as a major component of untapped seabed wealth.
India’s 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, department of ocean development, National Institute of Oceanography and National Geophysical Research Institute.
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, can be trapped in crystalline ice-like substances with water and small amounts of other gases. Methane hydrates are stable in ocean floor sediment at depths greater than 300m, and where they occur, they are known to cement loose sediment in a surface layer several hundred metres thick. If this methane can be freed in an economically viable manner, it will add to a country’s energy reserves.