The International Order on Oceans: An Indian Perspective

By: M Sudhakar
This article details the steps that have been taken by India to safeguard its oceanic territories as well the ocean resources as per the guidelines and specifications laid down by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) over the years.
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India, with its 7500 km coastline offers myriad possibilities of oceanic exploration. The seas around the sub-continent are replete with resources – fisheries, oil and gas, minerals, upholds activities related to shipping, protection of marine environment, national security and surveillance. The country portrayed its specific interest in the development of seabed resources under the seabed regime established in the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS-III) in 1982 that resulted in setting up of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an organ of the United Nations with its headquarters at Kingston, Jamaica.

The seabed gained its importance and momentum in the 60’s when John Mero, a scientist from the United States made an announcement in the United Nations General Assembly about the vast mineral resources on the seabed particularly ‘polymetallic nodules’ commonly known as ‘manganese nodules’. This led to serious thinking among the Group 77, comprising of developing and third world countries that had limited technological resources to investigate such resources on the seabed, but at the same time were concerned about leaving these resources to be exploited in the hands of a few industrialised and technologically developed nations. It was Arvid Pardo, the Maltese Ambassador who promulgated the seabed resources beyond national jurisdiction as ‘the common heritage of mankind’. India participated effectively in UNCLOS-I (1958), UNCLOS-II (1960) and UNCLOS-III (1973-1982). It amended its Constitution and enacted the Maritime Zones Act in 1976; the Coast Guard Act in 1978; the Maritime Zones of India Act for Regulation of Fishing by Foreign Vessels in 1981; issued rules in 1982; and enacted the Environmental Protection Act in 1986.

Figure 1. Map showing the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of India
Figure 1. Map showing the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of India


Figure 2. Major maritime zones involved in the Law of the Sea
Figure 2. Major maritime zones involved in the Law of the Sea

The Law of the Sea

When the League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations in 1945, it was thought desirable to provide for the establishment of a body, i.e., the International Law Commission (ILC) charged with the progressive codification of the International Law of the Sea. The ILC submitted a report in 1956 to the UN, which formed the basis for the first UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS-I) held at Geneva , in 1958.

The UNCLOS-I produced a legal framework of rules governing the rights and duties of states in the territorial sea, continental shelf and high seas. UNCLOS-I had adopted four conventions: The Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone; The Convention on the High Seas; The Convention on the Continental Shelf and a Convention on the Fisheries and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas. The first three of these were ratified by a substantial number of states and were based mainly on customary international law, as presented in the ILC’s report. Consequently, these conventions formed the core of the generally accepted rules of the Law of the Sea concerning maritime zones.

The major problem UNCLOS-I faced was to agree on some definite outer limit for the territorial sea and the states practices. To discuss this and to define fishery limits of a coastal state, an UNCLOS II was convened in 1960. The proposal was to adopt a compromise formula providing for a six mile territorial sea plus a six mile fishery zone. The proposal however lost by one vote.

It was agreed in 1970, in the UN General Assembly to convene a third UN Conference, with the aim of producing a comprehensive convention on the Law of the Sea. UNCLOS-III had to negotiate a political package that would be acceptable to all the member states. This involved defining the limits of national jurisdiction, over the seabed and, therefore, revision of parts of UNCLOS-I on the continental shelf, as well as on the high seas.

Image: Underwater photograph of nodules on the seabed floor at a depth of 5.5 km in the Indian Ocean.
Image: Underwater photograph of nodules on the seabed floor at a depth of 5.5 km in the Indian Ocean.


After extensive work spanning about a decade (1973 to 1982), UNCLOS-III was opened for signature in Montego Bay, Jamaica, on 10 December 1982; and was signed by 117 states including India. By 9 December 1984, it was signed by 155 states and 4 entities. However, the UNCLOS-III Regime could not come into force for more than a decade after the Convention was opened for signature. The main objection came from countries such as the USA, UK, Germany, and other industrialised states who opposed many of the provisions on seabed mining in international waters (Part XI of UNCLOS-III). Poor prospects of commercial production of seabed minerals and the lack of economic necessity were the other reasons, for non-implementation of UNCLOS-III. Eventually UNCLOS-III came into force and the ISA came into existence on 16 November 1994. All states who are party to the UNCLOS-III are members of the Authority. By May 2011, 161 states and the European Union were members of the Authority.

The country conforming to the international law, has well demarcated and distinct maritime zones – a 12 nautical mile (nm) territorial sea, a 24 nm contiguous zone, a 200 nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ) (Fig. 1), and the continental shelf extending beyond 200 nm (recently submitted for consideration by the commission on the delimitation of continental shelf) (Fig. 2). Having demarcated the maritime zones, India went on to claim the seabed area for mineral resources of manganese nodules in the Indian Ocean. It was the first country in the world and the only developing nation to have been recognised as a ‘pioneer investor’ (Fig. 3) and allocated a Pioneer Area of 150,000 sq km on 17 August 1987. France, Japan, erstwhile Soviet Union, China, Republic of Korea, InterOcean Metal (a group of East European countries) and Germany followed by claiming areas of the seabed in the Pacific Ocean popularly tagged as the Clarion and Clipperton Zone (CCZ).

The Indian Ocean

Manganese nodules are essentially rich in metals like manganese, copper, nickel and cobalt. India lacks terrestrial deposits of nickel and cobalt – found only as a by product of mining base metal deposits on land. Also, reserves of manganese and copper are likely to be exhausted within the next 20-25 years. However, the consumption of these metals has been rapidly increasing with  industry demand growing manifold. In order to meet the new and future needs, exploration and discovery of seabed deposits is a step towards sustainability for India. Technologies for exploration and exploitation of these deposits, lying at depths of 5 to 6 km in the Indian Ocean, are being developed with the support of the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES).

MoES is also investigating other resource deposits – hydrothermal massive sulphides rich in gold, silver, copper, zinc, lead etc. and cobalt-rich crusts enriched in cobalt and platinum on the seabed in the Indian Ocean to stake claims from the ISA. Some of these deposits are also rich in rare-earth elements (REE) and suitable recovery technologies when developed would harness these metals as well for the benefit of the country. Currently, India largely excavates REE from beaches and shallow waters off the west coast particularly in Kerala and these deposits are commonly known as ‘placers’. The seaward extension of such deposits is being investigated and the Ratnagiri coast of Maharashtra has been identified as one of the potential regions for placers. Apart from these, and conventional oil and gas deposits, minerals that are likely to meet the demand for energy requirements, are ‘gas-hydrates’ potentially known to occur in the Bay of Bengal. Also, demands of the fertiliser industry may be met from ‘phosphorites’, phosphorous rich deposits, presently lying unexploited  in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.


India is making efforts to claim other seabed areas that are potential sites for minerals like hydrothermal sulphides and cobalt-rich crusts. In recently concluded meetings of the ISA during its 17th Session (July 2011), China and Russia have claimed areas of hydrothermal sulphide for exploration in Southwest Indian Ridge and Mid-Atlantic Ridge, respectively and an area of 3,00,000 sq km each has been approved. Another milestone in the history of ISA is the claim by Republic of Nauru and Tonga, two islands nations in the Pacific Ocean, for allocation of reserved areas in the CCZ. This marks a new beginning of seabed mineral regime in view of the fact that new minerals – other than the nodules that attracted the attention of the international community in the past – are being sought.

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