India finalising claims to continental shelf

By Devirupa Mitra, IANS,

New Delhi : India is in the last stages of finalising its claims on extending its claim into the continental shelf before an international convention, which will increase its economic sovereignty – the right to use natural resources – by one to 2.5 million sq km of ocean.

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India, a state party to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, has to submit its claims before the UN Commission on the limits on the continental shelf by May 12, 2009 to extend its sovereignty beyond 200 nautical miles and within 350 nautical miles from the baseline.

The final report comes at the end of the nine-year-long multi-disciplinary scientific effort by eight organisations, spearheaded by the Goa-based National Centre for Antarctica and Ocean Research.

According to officials, the scientific report had been submitted to the earth sciences ministry six months ago. Since then, the various stakeholder ministries have been looking at the legal and policy aspects required to fine-tune the submission.

“The scientists would like to include as much as possible, but the legal advisers are more conservative, just looking at what claims are air-tight,” said a senior official.

Over the last nine years, the different studies have collected over seven to eight tetrabytes of data after surveying the Indian marine area divided into lines totalling 30,000 km.

The delineation of the continental shelf based on article 76 of UN Convention includes determining the water depth, sedimentary rock thickness and precise mapping of the foot of the continental slope.

Officials emphasised that the process was now at a “sensitive” stage, with official-level discussions with neighbouring countries including Pakistan also going on.

“We want to go to the cabinet within this month, but we have some important policy issues to wrap up,” he said.

Perhaps, the most important decision yet to be taken is whether India will make a full or only partial submission before the deadline.

“A full submission means that India cannot make additional claims later. Another thing is that no major disputes have been settled so far on existing claims. That means the important features will be defined technically in case of dispute,” said an official, indicating that a partial submission was a distinct possibility.

India’s shares maritime boundaries with Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

In the neighbourhood, only Myanmar and Indonesia has so far filed continental shelf claims before the UN body. Incidentally, India had a major role in the technical preparation Myanmar’s submission in December 2008.

One of the most important decisions will also have to be on the “baseline” from where the jurisdiction is marked, which will have notified in an official gazette as per the domestic Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic zone and Other Maritime Zones Act of 1976.

“We are taking the baseline to be conventional one at the low waterline. But as is standard practice, where the coastline is rugged and there are islands, we took a straight base line,” said a senior external affairs ministry official.

Bangladesh has already notified its baseline, which is disputed by both India and Myanmar. It measured its baseline from a distance of 10 fathoms from the shore, arguing that its coastline is unstable.

With Sri Lanka, the short distance of less than 24 nautical miles means that a separate statement of understanding may have to be signed between the two countries. “We are talking to the Lankans. We do not want to have a dispute after our claim is submitted,” he said.

Except for Pakistan and Bangladesh, India has boundary agreements with all the other neighbours – but even these will have to be revised in light of the extension of the continental shelf limits.

Then, there is the long-standing dispute with Pakistan over Sir Creek – which is part of the composite dialogue process that is currently at a pause after the Mumbai attacks.

“That’s why, we have divided our claim in blocks. So that, if any country objects to a certain part, we can at least ask that the uncontested blocks are approved first,” said a senior earth sciences ministry official.

Before the matter is decided by the cabinet, a final meeting of the three involved ministries, which also include the ministry of defence, may take place soon.

Once the paper is sent to the UN body, it may take another three to four months before India is called to defend its claims before a sub-group.

(Devirupa Mitra can be contacted at [email protected])