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Admiral R K Dhowan (Retd): India Alters Course towards the Seas – World Oceans Day 2021
By Sea and Coast | 04/06/2021

India Alters Course towards the Seas – World Oceans Day 2021

Our Blue planet the Earth has a dominance of the maritime domain, with over 70% of the Earth’s surface covered by water, nearly 80% of the world population living within 200 nautical miles from the coast and about 90% of the world trade transiting by the sea. Oceans are therefore central to life on Earth. They are rich in oil and mineral resources, they are the suppliers of Oxygen, absorbers of Carbon dioxide, a virtual heat sink, rich in biodiversity and have emerged as the global economic highways for transit of seaborne trade. With depletion of resources on land, humankind has turned towards the sea for resources and there is a misperception that oceans have an unending resource base and are an infinite sink, but nothing could be further away from reality. Over the past few decades, we are witnessing pollution of the seas and contamination of the natural marine habitat, resulting in an adverse impact of climate change on the oceans. Studies have indicated that almost 80% of pollutants in the oceans emanate from land and if the current rate of pollution continues in a few decades we will have more plastic in the oceans than fish.

The concept of Blue Economy has emerged as a new paradigm and I would like to define harnessing the Blue Economy as Economic Development of all our maritime interests but by efficient utilisation of marine resources, with minimum impact on the environment to ensure sustainable development of the oceans.

While there are an ocean of opportunities to harness the Blue Economy there is a need to provide a safe, secure and stable environment in the maritime domain which can only be provided by comprehensive maritime security co-operation between the maritime forces of the region.

The waters of the Indo Pacific have emerged as global economic highways, but the seas are no longer a benign medium and globalisation has resulted in vulnerability of the oceans. The threats and challenges in the maritime domain are as wide and varied as they come and include piracy, maritime terrorism, arms trafficking, drug smuggling, human trafficking and poaching or IUU fishing.

The instabilities and turbulence on land and issues related to territorial integrity, sovereignty, and control of resources in some parts of the Indo Pacific Region have the potential to spill over into the maritime domain and the situation can best be described as ‘fragile’, consequently over 120 warships from over 20 navies are always present in the Indian Ocean Region to safeguard their maritime interests. In addition, naval assets are regularly deployed in the South China Sea to ensure freedom of navigation.

In order to meet the threats and challenges, the Navies and Coastguards of the region need to have an effective information sharing arrangement to enhance the Maritime Domain Awareness across the Indo Pacific Region. India has leveraged technology to launch the Naval Communication Satellite Rukmini in 2013. In addition, India has set up an extensive NC3I network, by linking up the AIS Chain, the coastal Radar Stations and 51 stations of the Navy and the Coast Guard at the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC), which was set up by the Indian Navy in 2014. In addition, the Information Fusion Centre has been set up by the Indian Navy in 2018, as a collaboration for safety and security in the Indian Ocean Region.

Another challenge on the waters of the Indo Pacific Region is that indiscriminate pollution of the seas has resulted in a detrimental impact of climate change on the oceans. Consequently, a large percentile of extreme climatic conditions turn into natural disasters and our Navies and Coast Guards have to be constantly ready to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Another area where Navies and their hydrographic assets can play a significant role is Marine Spatial Planning. There is a need to systemically map the coastal areas and the exclusive Economic zones to prevent creation of ‘offshore ocean slums’, and optimally exploit the sea areas for harnessing Blue Economy.

The high seas which cover nearly 50% of the Earth’s surface is the least protected area on the planet. The Sea lines of communication are the arteries for the flow of oil and trade. Any impediment to the free flow of oil or trade will have a detrimental impact, not just on the economies of the region but the global economy as well. Navies of maritime countries in the region will therefore need to work together to evolve a common rule-based international order and ensure freedom of navigation in the global commons. Maritime security is an enabler of the Blue economy and safety, security and stability in the maritime domain are prerequisites for harnessing the blue economy. No single Navy is robust enough to ensure safety and security in the global commons on its own and there is a need to examine connectivity options and existing maritime structures to promote maritime cooperation across the Indo-Pacific.

As far as the existing structures are concerned, we find them at three levels in the Indian Ocean region. At the conceptual level, we have the concept of SAGAR, which stands for Security and growth for all in the region and is the vision of the Honorable Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi. At the political level, we have the Indian Ocean Rim Association for promoting cooperation among the countries of the region. At the execution level of the navies, we have the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, which is a unique initiative taken by the Indian Navy in 2008 and today provides a template to promote maritime cooperation among navies of the Indian Ocean Region.

Similarly, in the Indo-Pacific region at the conceptual level, we could consider the strategy for free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, at the political level, we have the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad constructand at the execution level of the navies we need to formalize the structure between navies of the Quad countries, to provide synergy to enhance maritime cooperation across the Indo-Pacific.

India is essentially a maritime nation with vast maritime interests which are enablers of our Blue Economy and have a vital relationship with the nation’s economic growth. In recent years, under the leadership of our Honourable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, there have been a series of initiatives for sustainable development in the maritime domain including the quest to harness the Blue economy.

I will now highlight some of the salient recommendations to chart the way ahead, as India once again alters course towards the seas to emerge as a resurgent Maritime nation. 

As a maritime nation, India has significant potential to harness the Blue Economy. We need to chart a national level Action Plan for the Blue Economy for sustainable development of our maritime interests and ocean resources.

During the Maritime Summit, the honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi had recommended that in the maritime sector we should avoid working in Silos. Taking off from the Honourable PM’s vision, we should adopt an integrated approach in the maritime sector.  There is a need for an apex level Organisation to coordinate and integrate the planning processes of various departments and agencies in the maritime domain for economic development of our maritime interests and monitoring of the Blue economy initiatives.

The Sagarmala project is the flagship project of the Ministry of ports, shipping and waterways, which is a port led initiative based on four pillars of port modernization, connectivity, port led industrialization and coastal community development. We need to incorporate marine spatial planning while developing ports and coastal areas to ensure a planned and sustainable development of the maritime domain.

The Ministry of ports, shipping and waterways has taken several initiatives to support the shipbuilding, ship repair and ship recycling industries. However, there is a mismatch between Flag and Trade. While  95% of our external trade by volume and 77% by value transits by sea, only 7% is carried in Indian hulls. We need to draw up a national shipbuilding plan to optimally load our indigenous shipyards and ensure that we build a variety of large and small ships in different tonnage and categories. These ships should be constructed in accordance with the energy efficiency design index, approved by the IMO and propelled by environmentally friendly fuel.

India has a thriving fishing industry with 250,000 fishing boats and four million active fishermen and is the second largest fish producing nation in the world.  However, this is only scratching the surface as 90% of fishing in Indian waters is restricted to our coastal areas and there is hardly any deep sea fishing activity in Indian waters. The Government has promulgated the National Policy on Fisheries.  We now need to focus on Deep sea fishing and sustainable fishing. We also need to induct deep sea fishing trawlers  and processing platforms constructed  in indigenous shipyards . In addition we need to set up processing zones for providing employment opportunities for the coastal community and enhancing fisheries exports.

India has over 1300 islands and islets as part of the Andaman and Nicobar islands and Lakshadweep group of Islands. The Government has prepared a comprehensive Island development plan, taking into account aspects of security,  economic sustenance,  environmental preservation, social and cultural sustenance. We need to develop green field infrastructure, with minimum carbon footprint for cruise tourism and controlled ecotourism.  The development of port infrastructure in the A&N Islands would also increase the connectivity options and enhance marine tourism and sea borne trade with our littoral neighbours,  as there are seven countries located on the rim of the Bay of Bengal, which is one of the largest bays in the world.

India also needs to focus on offshore oil and gas exploration,  deep seabed mining in the area allocated in Central Indian Ocean . However we need to ensure that we preserve the ecology and environment and prevent any damage of the natural marine habitat.

In addition it should be our endeavour to pursue options for ocean based sources of renewable energy, such as offshore wind, tidal and wave energy and Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion.

In order to fully implement the Honourable Prime Minister Sri Narendra Modi’s vision of SAGAR, security and growth for all in the region, we need to draw up a comprehensive roadmap for maritime cooperation with various countries in the region (with whole of Govt approach) to ensure safe, secure and sustainable seas and to shape a positive and favourable environment across the Indo Pacific region.

The Honorable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi has launched the dynamic initiative of Swachh Bharat. We need to extend the initiative to Swachh Sagar and India could take the lead to work with countries of the region and draw up an action plan to ensure clean and healthy oceans for our future generations.

The seas around us are gaining new found importance as each day goes by and I have no doubt that the current century is the century of the seas. India has vast maritime interests which are enablers of our blue economy. As India alters course towards the seas to emerge as a resurgent maritime nation we need to ensure that these maritime interests which have a vital relationship with the nation’s economic growth are allowed to develop unhindered at all times.

#Sea and coast