Script: N. BHADRAN NAIR, Executive Editor, Indian Science Journal
Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama set his foot on Indian soil in Kozhikode (earlier known as Calicut) on 20 May 1498 on a trade mission, the first man to sail from Europe to India. Prosperous India had been a sought after trade destination by Arabs and later the Europeans for centuries.
Today’s India has a unique maritime position, with nearly 7500 kilometres of coastline. After independence, its coastal connectivity grew and with nearly 200 ports, it now handles approximately 1,400 tons of cargo every year. The country has exclusive rights over two million square kilometres of the maritime zone, with significant recoverable resources like minerals, crude oil and natural gas.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi realised the potential of these maritime resources as a key economic driver and its exploration was put on the national agenda after he assumed office in 2014.
In an effort to unlock maritime resources, the central government rolled out a ‘Blue Economic Policy’. The draft policy document outlines the vision and strategy of the government to utilise the vast marine resources to contribute towards the country’s GDP, improve the lives of coastal communities, preserve biodiversity and maintain the national security of marine areas and resources. It is a vast socio-economic opportunity for coastal nations like India to utilize ocean resources for societal benefit responsibly.
The Indian Ocean has rich deposits of minerals like manganese, nickel, cobalt, copper and iron hydroxide, which lies 6,000 metres under the ocean floor The estimated polymetallic nodule resource potential in this area is estimated to be around 380 million tonnes (MT). These metals can be extracted and used in electronic devices, smartphones, batteries and even solar panels.
India has signed a contract with the International Seabed Authority for exploration of 1.5 lakh square kilometres in the Central Indian Ocean Basin, but after an analysis of the resources, New Delhi has surrendered half of it and retained 75,000 square kilometres.
The size of India’s Blue Economy has conservatively been estimated at 4 per cent of the country’s GDP, according to a draft policy framework prepared by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. The policy framework outlines, India’s plan for the exploration of resources in the Exclusive Economic Zone, including extraction of renewable energy, hydrocarbons, precious minerals and metals.
Along with the Blue Economic Policy, New Delhi also unveiled a national perspective plan for the development of port-led infrastructure named “Sagarmala” Project. Though about 95 per cent of India’s merchandise trade by volume passes through seaports, there were several infrastructure and operational challenges.
Sagarmala project envisages creating next-generation (NexGen) infrastructure as part of Prime Minister Modi’s flagship programme “Atmanirbhar Bharat” or Self-Sufficient India. It is an ambitious national initiative aimed at bringing about a sea-change in India’s logistics sector performance, by unlocking the full potential of its coastline and waterways. Sagarmala seeks to reduce logistics cost for both domestic and export cargo, besides reducing carbon emissions from the transport sector.
India launched a global summit in 2016 to involve international partners in the port-lead growth trajectory. The focussed approach on the entire sector helped increase the capacity of major ports to around 1,550 million tonnes per annum now. As part of the national maritime policy, India is also planning to develop domestic and international cruise terminals at selected ports, which could give a boost to tourism. Recently, Prime Minister inaugurated India’s first international cruise terminal in Kochi. The policy would also promote maritime shipping and navigation, education and training for mercantile marine, shipbuilding and ship repair industry, ship breaking, fishing vessels industry and floating craft industry.
The central government has provided a budgetary allocation of over Rs. 4,000 crore for the next five years to undertake ocean explorations. “Our oceans are a storehouse of living and non-living resources. This Mission will cover deep ocean survey exploration and projects for the conservation of deep-sea biodiversity,” said Finance Minister Mrs. Nirmala Sitharaman, while announcing the budget proposals for 2021-22.
Besides the budgetary allocation, India needs huge capital investment to develop its port-based and marine economy. And to accomplish it, Modi sought private investment in these efforts. “India’s long coastline awaits you. Invest in our ports. Invest in our people. Let India be your preferred trade destination. Let Indian ports be your port of call for trade and commerce,” Prime Minister Modi said while inaugurating the Maritime India Summit 2021.