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Climate change and Environmental Protection: India’s Unique Role in the Arctic as a ‘Tripolar state’

Kanagavalli Suryanarayanan

26 May 2022

“The future of India will be, to a large extent, determined by the Arctic and the future of Arctic will also be determined by what takes place in India and other Asian countries”.
- Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, Former President of Iceland


One of the most important developments in the global geopolitics is the increasing interest in the Arctic region especially among the Asian observer states [1]. The unprecedented sea ice melting and global warming has opened out new shipping routes and created commercial interest in the region, and on the other hand climate change has created serious challenge to the Arctic Environment. States have adopted different position according to their ‘national interest’ in the so called ‘Arctic Paradox’ [2]. Unlike Arctic states, India has no territorial sovereignty over the Arctic region, but India has both the strategic interest and unique advantage (Presence in all the three poles including the Himalayas) [3] to contribute towards the climate change and Environmental protection. This paper Analyses how India as a ‘Tripolar state’ is at a unique position to contribute through its Arctic Policy, Cooperation and scientific research towards global climate change and Environment protection in the Arctic.


Unlike other Asian observer states like China, South Korea and Japan, India’s interest in the Arctic is not primarily based on new shipping routes through the Arctic or energy requirements. India’s geographical positioning, comfortably in the Indian Ocean gives India easy access to Suez Canal and energy from Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, although there is an increasing interest to diversify [4]. India is home to a major part of the Himalayas which is at times referred to as the ‘Third pole’, which has the largest number of glaciers beyond the two Poles. “India is not disconnected with what is happening in the Arctic and, in fact, there is a clear linkage. The rise or decrease in temperature in the Arctic region makes a significant difference to the monsoon and cold waves in India” [5] says Anoop Mahajan, a senior scientist from the Indian Institute of Tropical metrology. The drastic melting of the glaciers, flooding of the plains, severe monsoon effects, inundation of coastal cities due to climate change are serious concerns of India. India’s Arctic Policy (IAP) [6] clearly speaks about the significance of Arctic and the impact of climate change on its economy and its effect on the yield of summer crops such as rice, pulses, and soybeans which contributes to almost 50% of India’s food output, which is totally dependent on the monsoon cycle and the glacial waters that feed its river system. India with a population of 1.3 billion cannot afford to risk its food, water and economic security [7].

Even though China has scientific bases in both the poles and Himalayas, but the Chinese interest in Arctic is aligned with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [8] plans to develop the Polar silk route through the Arctic in order to avoid the ‘Malacca dilemma’ to strengthen its supply chain to transport Chinese goods to the European Markets, import oil and gas from Russian Arctic [9] and fish in the CAO [10] region with its large distant water fishing vessels [11]. China is investing in nuclear icebreakers [12] and collaborating with Russians to build the Kamchatka trans-shipment terminal [13] and develop new ports [14] in the Arctic in order to facilitate movement throughout the year through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) [15]. The Economic gains that China is interested though extraction and exploitation will result serious environmental impact and vastly impact the marine biodiversity of the region. [16]

India’s association with the Arctic dates back to 1920 as party to the Svalbard treaty [17] but it has never commercially exploited Svalbard, although there is recent criticism that Svalbard is utilized by non-arctic states to further their Arctic ambitions [18]. Interestingly the Chinese People liberation army (PLAN) is one of the main planners of the Chinese Polar science program. Unlike China, which has sought more autonomy on its research station and asserting its rights as a contracting party to the Svalbard treaty [19], IAP does not make any such assertions. Chinese declaration as “Near Arctic state’ and India’s interest as a “Tripolar state’ may sound similar, asserting their presence over the region. But the China’s focus on the region is predominantly based on its economic needs (blue economic passage…leading up to Europe via the Arctic Ocean) [20] and to assert its right in the Arctic region [21]. On the other hand, IAP focuses on its research capability in all the three poles and to conduct research in a synergized manner to provides key solution not only to its own problems but also towards the global climate crisis and the Arctic. IAP strongly highlights the impact of warming Arctic to the rest of the world and vice versa through ‘teleconnection’ between Arctic and Himalayas [22]. Hence India is in a ‘unique’ position to play a key role in Arctic Environment Protection even with its limited rights as an observer state.


India’s Arctic engagement is an extension of its interest to conduct scientific research on all the three polar regions of the world (POLAERNET) [23] on the increased absorbing aerosol over the ice-covered region (E.g., Black carbon) and its impact on Polar Sea ice melting on glaciers in India and the Inundation of the coastal states due to the change in Monsoon Patterns [24]. In line with that in 2008, India established its research base ‘Himadri’, in Svalbard, to conduct research in biological and atmospheric science, marine ecosystem, and glaciology [25] and IndArc, moored observatory in Kongsfjorden, to study on ‘teleconnection’ between Arctic and Himalayan region [26]. In 2016, atmospheric laboratory was set up to study weather pattern changes and effects of long-range pollutants. The IPCC’s Special Report on Ocean and Cryosphere (2019) mentions how the shrinking cryosphere has led to negative impacts on people and ecosystem in both Arctic and the Himalayas [27]. IAP acknowledges this fact and conducts integrated study on biogeochemical, glaciological and ice core-based climate reconstruction in all the 3 polar regions to understand the response of cryosphere in climate change [28]. NCPOR [29] is the Indian nodal body in polar research, it functions under the Ministry of Earth Sciences not under the External Affairs or Defense ministry. This itself shows India’s interest is titled towards Scientific research. However, India has been criticized for the same for not going ahead in time understanding the changing Arctic dynamics [30].

‘India’s Arctic Policy: Building a partnership for sustainable development’, has been published on 17 March 2022 which is based on 6 pillars of which 3 of them are science and Research, Climate change and Environmental protection, and Governance and International cooperation [31]. Even though there is shift in policy towards more of a holistic approach to the Arctic, IAP commits to engage with the Arctic in accordance to the UN sustainable development, coupled with strong environmental goals to study the synergy between the three poles. India commits to research on Arctic Ecosystem values, marine protected areas and contribute towards environmental management in the Arctic and engage with Emergency preparedness and response working group of the Arctic council to contribute towards the environmental emergencies in the Arctic [32].

India conducts comparative study on the glacial retreat in both Svalbard and Himalaya and the observations have found significant retreat in both the regions [33]. However, India can do more in this field as it occupies the heights of the Siachen glacier through its military bases for years now and the glacial retreat is clearly documented, [34] there should be more coordination between Himadri, Himansh and Maitri and Dakshin Gangotri on the destructive impact of human occupation in fragile environment. India also needs to coordinate more with the Himalayan states on scientific cooperation and initiate a regional cooperation in lines with the Arctic Council which is lacking in the region.

India’s regional meteorological forecasting, disaster management support ‘South Asia satellite’ [35] and NISAR (US and India’s collaborative mission) which will study earth-changing ecosystems, ice mass, sea-level rise due to climate change, in the Arctic [36] need to coordinate the data sourced from these satellites to strengthen collaboration between the Arctic and South Asian states in disaster management.

India has undertaken 13 expeditions to the Arctic and 41 expeditions to the Antarctic [37] yet it has been chartering Polar Research vehicles (PRV) to conduct its research. In Oct 2014, the acquisition of PRV was approved [38] but due delay and escalated cost this could not ahead. India’s Parliamentary standing committee again in 2021 has requested for the timely allocation of funds towards the acquisition of PRV [39]. The lack of urgency, timely non-allocation of budget and bureaucratic complacency are all India’s problems in implementing the Arctic policy.


India became an observer state in the Arctic Council at Kiruna in 2013 and renewed its membership status in 2019 in Rovaniemi and is contributing in various working group projects [40]. India is supporting ACAP [41] with data on atmospheric aerosols and emerging contaminants from IndArc and Gruvebedat observatory. India working with AMAP [42] in monitoring of glaciers, Arctic Precipitation and climate change studies. India works for CAFF [43] on microbial diversity in Svalbard and Arctic breeding birds that visit India on a yearly basis [44]. India is also a member of International Arctic Science Committee [45]. However, India needs to improve its participation in Arctic Council meetings.

India is one of the few countries which is on track with its COP26 [46] commitments and Paris agreement targets. India is rightly collaborating with Nordic states on renewable energy instead of mining more hydrocarbons from the Arctic. India and Denmark have entered into a Green strategic partnership in the area of green technology, renewable energy, pollution control, waste management. [47] The recent 2nd Indo-Nordic summit in Copenhagen with heads of all five Nordic states which focused on green transition to combat climate change [48]. India’s Solar Alliance and the Grids initiative are all moves in the right direction to a clean and green future [49]. India and Iceland have signed agreement to increase cooperation in geothermal sector. Indo-Nordic scientific collaboration in Svalbard and Antarctica, Indo-US and Indo-Canada collaboration is setting up research base in Alaska and Cambridge Bay to study impact of climate change on bio diversity in the Arctic [50] are benefiting India’s Tripolar Environmental protection initiatives. However, India can play a larger role to bring the Arctic, Himalayan states and ATCP [51] members states under a single umbrella for more integrated scientific cooperation in order to facilitate climate change and Environmental protection initiatives in a synchronized manner.


IAP mentions the Vedic philosophy of ’Vasudeiva Kutumbakam’ which means the world is one family. This forms the basis of India’s Arctic policy, which focuses on climate change and Environmental protection in the Arctic both for its own national interest and also for global benefit. Although, India needs to concentrate on building its capacity further, still India’s Policy and effort on Tripolar research brings a ‘unique and important perspective’ in fighting the global climate crisis and protecting the Environment in all the three poles in including the Arctic.


[1] India, China, Japan, Singapore, UK, Netherlands, South Korea, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Switzerland <> accessed on 07 May 2022 [2] Klaus Dodds & Jamie Woodward,’ The Arctic Paradox: Why the Arctic is caught in the conflicting pressures of global climate change’ (2021) Oxford University Press blog <> accessed on 12 May 2022 [3] Research station – Himadri (78° 55' 24.7368'' N 11° 54' 35.6220'' E), Ny Alesund, Svalbard, Maitri (70o45’52” S & 11o44’03” E) and Bharati (69° 24.41' S, 76° 11.72' E)-Antarctica and Himansh- Chandra Basin, Lahaul-Spiti District- Himalayas (Latitude-32°24’34” Longitude- 77°36’32" at 13500 feet) [4] Govt of India, MEA, ’India-Russia Joint statement following the visit of the president of the Russian Federation’ Dec 06,2021 Para 37 <> accessed on 2 April 2022 [5] Sahana Ghosh and Mayank Aggarwal, ‘India’s Draft Arctic Policy Explores What the Two Regions Can Do for Each Other’ <> accessed 27 November 2021. 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[19] ibid [20] State Council Information Office: People’s Republic of China, “Vision for Maritime Cooperation under Belt and Road Initiative,” 20 June 2017 < /> accessed on 30 April 2022 [21] The People’s Republic of China, The State Council of Information Office (2018)’ China’s Arctic Policy, White Paper’ <> accessed on 08 May 2022 [22] N (6) Para 3.0.2 [23] Polar Aerosol Network [24] National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research, Government of India, (2019-2020)’ Annual report’ 1, 26 [25] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India,’ India and the Arctic’ (MEA,10 June 2013) <> accessed on 28 November 2021 [26] NCPOR, GOI, ’IndARC Multisensor Mooring’ <> accessed on 28 November 2021 [27] IPCC Special Report on Ocean and Cryosphere 2019 Pg 1,15 -16 [28] National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research, Government of India, (2020-2021)’ Annual report’ 1. 9-34 [29] National Centre for Polar Research [30] Uttam Sinha,’ India in Arctic: A multidimensional approach’ (2019) Vol 12(1) Vestinik of St Petersburg University, International Relations Pg 113, 114-115 [31] N (6) Pg 10-17,20-21 [32] N (6) Pg 13 [33] N (6) Para 3.0.2; National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research: Govt of India, ‘Annual Report 2018-2019 (English)’1, 45 [34] ‘Global warming making Siachen risker for soldiers’ 12 Jul 2018 Economic Times accessed on 11 May 2022 [35] ISRO,’GSLV successfully launches south Asia Satellite’05 May 2017 <> accessed on 14 May 2022 [36] N (6) Para 2.2.3 [37] National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research, Government of India: Annual Report 2019-2020 (English)1, 38 [38] Govt of India, MOES ‘A Polar Research Vehicle to be acquired at the cost of over Rs 1050 Crore Rupees for Research in Antarctica, Arctic and in the Southern Ocean Region’ Press information Bureau, April 23, 2015 <> accessed on 2 April 2022 [39] Govt of India, Rajya Sabha ‘Report 347-Department-Related parliamentary standing committee on science and technology, environment, forests and climate change’ March 8, 2021 Pg 1,11 <> accessed on 2nd April 2022 [40] N (6) Para 1.2.7 [41] Arctic Contaminants action program [42] Arctic Monitoring and assessment program [43] Conservation of Arctic flora and fauna [44]Arctic Council, ’Republic of India- observer report 2019-2021’<> accessed on 12 May 2022 [45] N (6) Para 1.2.4 [46] 26th United Nations climate change conference [47] Ministry of External Affairs: Government of India,’ India–Denmark Joint Statement during State Visit of Prime Minister of Denmark to India ‘(October 09, 2021) <> accessed on 29 November 2021 [48]GOI, MEA’ Joint statement: 2nd Indo Nordic Summit’ <> accessed on 12 May 2022 [49] Ministry of External affairs: Government of India,’ English Translation of Prime Minister’s remarks at the session on ‘Accelerating Clean Technology Innovation and Deployment’ at COP26 Summit in Glasgow’ (01 November 2021 <> accessed on 29 November 2021 [50] Uttam Singh, ‘India a Tripolar nation: Breaking the ice’ (2021) Vol 1(20) India news <> accessed on 14 may 2022 [51] Antarctic treaty Consultative party members, Antarctic Treaty 1959.

Author - KANAGAVALLI SURYANARAYANAN is an Advocate from India. She holds a bachelor degree in law from Dr Ambedkar Govt. Law College, Pondicherry University. She is a gold medalist in administrative law and Civil Procedure Code. She specializes in Arctic and Antarctic law, Climate change, Indigenous rights and IPR. She is the first Indian to pursue LLM in Polar Law at University of Akureyri at Iceland. She writes for various international think tanks.

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