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Northern Sea Route


Murmansk, popularly called the capital of the Arctic region and the beginning point of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), is witnessing the rising trend of Indian involvement in cargo traffic. In the first seven months of 2023, India got the lion’s share with 35% of eight million tonnes of cargo handled by the Murmansk port, which is about 2,000 km northwest of Moscow. India has been showing greater interest regarding the NSR for a variety of reasons.


GS II: International Relations

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Significance of the Arctic Region for India
  2. India’s Arctic Engagement Timeline
  3. Key Aspects of India’s Arctic Engagement
  4. Russia’s Efforts to Make the NSR Navigable

Significance of the Arctic Region for India:

  • Climate Impact: The vulnerability of the Arctic to climate change can have repercussions on India’s climate, monsoon patterns, and weather systems, potentially affecting agriculture and water availability.
  • Economic and Water Security: Changes in the Arctic can impact sea levels, which may affect coastal areas and ports, impacting India’s trade and maritime activities. Melting ice may also lead to changes in ocean currents, which could influence India’s fisheries and monsoon.
  • Hydrocarbon Potential: The Arctic region holds significant untapped reserves of oil, gas, coal, zinc, and silver. Given India’s energy demands, accessing these resources could enhance energy security.
  • Global Resource Competition: As major powers compete for access to Arctic resources and shipping routes, India’s interests in the region allow it to engage diplomatically and economically with other Arctic states.
  • Sustainable Development: India’s Arctic policy aligns with UN Sustainable Development Goals, emphasizing responsible and sustainable development while considering the environment and local communities.
  • Scientific Research: India can benefit from scientific research in the Arctic to better understand climate change and its impacts, leading to improved policymaking.
  • Geopolitical Engagement: India’s involvement in Arctic Council discussions and initiatives enhances its diplomatic engagement and partnerships with Arctic states.
  • Strengthening Ties: India’s interest in the Arctic provides opportunities to enhance bilateral and multilateral relations with Arctic countries, fostering cooperation on various global issues.

India’s Arctic Engagement Timeline:

  • 1920: India’s engagement with the Arctic traces back to the signing of the Svalbard Treaty, which marked an early connection with the region.
  • 2008: India established the Himadri Research Station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, demonstrating its commitment to scientific research in the Arctic.
  • 2014: India launched its first multi-sensor moored observatory, furthering its scientific capabilities in the region.
  • 2016: The country inaugurated its northernmost atmospheric laboratory, showcasing its dedication to atmospheric research in the Arctic.
  • Expeditions: Thirteen successful Arctic expeditions have been conducted by India, highlighting its active involvement in scientific exploration.
  • May 2013: India, along with China and other countries, was granted observer status in the Arctic Council, indicating increased diplomatic engagement with Arctic affairs.

Key Aspects of India’s Arctic Engagement:

  • Scientific Research: India’s engagement is primarily centered around scientific studies, including atmospheric, biological, marine, hydrological, and glaciological research.
  • Research Station: The establishment of the Himadri Research Station showcases India’s commitment to on-site research and exploration in the Arctic.
  • Observatories: Launching a multi-sensor moored observatory and a northernmost atmospheric laboratory demonstrates India’s advanced capabilities in monitoring and understanding the Arctic environment.
  • Diplomatic Status: Gaining observer status in the Arctic Council highlights India’s efforts to engage diplomatically with Arctic countries and contribute to regional discussions.

The Northern Sea Route (NSR):

The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is the shortest shipping route for freight transportation between Europe and countries in the Asia-Pacific region. It stretches across four seas of the Arctic Ocean.

  • Geographical Extent: The NSR covers a distance of approximately 5,600 kilometers. It begins at the boundary between the Barents and Kara seas (Kara Strait) and ends at the Bering Strait (Provideniya Bay).
  • Distance Advantage: According to a paper published by the Arctic Institute in September 2011, the NSR offers potential distance savings of up to 50% compared to the longer shipping lanes traditionally used via the Suez or Panama canals.
  • Significance: The NSR gained renewed attention due to the blockage of the Suez Canal in 2021, which disrupted the widely-used maritime route between Europe and Asia. This incident emphasized the importance of alternative shipping routes like the NSR

Russia’s Efforts to Make the NSR Navigable:

  • Icebreaking Assistance: Due to the Arctic Ocean’s icebound nature for most of the year, icebreaking assistance is crucial for ensuring safe navigation along the Northern Sea Route (NSR). This assistance involves breaking through the ice to create a navigable path for ships.
  • Nuclear-Powered Icebreaker Fleet: Russia possesses a unique advantage in making the NSR navigable—the world’s only fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers. This fleet is managed by the Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation, which oversees NSR infrastructure. This nuclear-powered fleet plays a vital role in breaking through the thick ice and ensuring ships can traverse the NSR.
  • Historical Milestone: The NSR development took a significant step forward with the introduction of the world’s first nuclear icebreaker, named “Lenin,” in December 1959. This nuclear-powered icebreaker marked a new era in making the NSR more accessible and navigable. However, after three decades of operation, the “Lenin” was decommissioned.
  • FSUE Atomflot: Currently, FSUE Atomflot, a subsidiary of Rosatom, operates the fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers. The fleet consists of seven nuclear-powered icebreakers, and there is also a nuclear-powered container ship in operation.
  • Future Expansion: Russia’s commitment to enhancing NSR navigability continues with plans for further expansion of the nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet. Three additional nuclear-powered icebreakers are expected to be commissioned between 2024 and 2027. This expansion aims to provide enhanced icebreaking support and ensure safe navigation along the route.

Driving Factors for India’s Participation in NSR Development:

India’s interest in participating in the development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) is driven by several key factors:

Growth in Cargo Traffic:

  • The NSR has witnessed a significant growth in cargo traffic, with a growth rate of around 73% during 2018-2022.
  • This growth trend indicates the route’s increasing importance as a maritime trade corridor. In the past year, the volume of cargo traffic along the NSR reached 34.117 million tonnes.

Energy Resource Imports:

  • India’s increasing import of essential energy resources like crude oil and coal from Russia plays a crucial role in its interest in the NSR.
  • Rosatom, the infrastructure operator, highlights that the NSR’s reliable and safe transport capability can enable record supplies of energy resources to the Indian economy.

Strategic Geographical Position:

  • India’s strategic geographical location and its reliance on sea transportation for trade make the NSR’s development as a transit route of particular significance.
  • The NSR’s potential as a shorter route between Europe and the Asia-Pacific region aligns well with India’s trade routes.

Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor (CVMC):

  • The CVMC project, initiated through a memorandum of intent between India and Russia in September 2019, is a key driver.
  • This corridor aims to establish an international container transit route through the NSR. The 10,500 km-long CVMC, connecting the Sea of Japan, South China Sea, and Malacca Strait, offers a much shorter transport time of 12 days compared to the existing St. Petersburg-Mumbai route covering 16,000 km.
  • This presents significant trade efficiency benefits.

Cargo Types:

  • A study commissioned by the Chennai Port Trust identified that specific cargoes, such as coking coal used by steel companies, crude oil, Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), and fertilisers, could be imported from Russia to India through the CVMC. This aligns with India’s industrial and energy needs.

Collective Influence Considerations:

  • Experts are discussing the possibility of China and Russia gaining collective influence over the NSR due to their roles in its development.
  • This potential geopolitical aspect adds to India’s interest in the region’s affairs.

Future Outlook:

The development and activities related to the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and its collaboration with India hold several significant aspects in the coming years:

NSR Development Plan:

  • The Russian government’s approved NSR development plan until 2035 outlines ambitious cargo traffic targets. By 2024, the goal is to achieve 80 million tonnes of cargo traffic, which is expected to increase to 150 million tonnes by the year 2030.
  • This plan reflects Russia’s commitment to enhancing the NSR’s capacity and efficiency for maritime trade.

Economic Sanctions:

  • The approval of the NSR development plan took place against the backdrop of economic sanctions imposed by Western countries against Russia.
  • Despite these challenges, Russia remains focused on advancing its strategic goals for the NSR’s development.

Russian-Indian Collaboration:

  • In March 2023, a Russian delegation engaged with the Indian business community in New Delhi and Mumbai to discuss NSR development.
  • The discussions centered around providing essential components to ensure year-round operation of the route. Rosatom’s interest in involving Indian companies in NSR-related projects demonstrates the potential for collaboration between the two countries in this significant endeavor.

CVMC Workshop:

  • The Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor (CVMC) project, which holds promise for shorter and more efficient maritime trade between India and Russia through the NSR, is set to advance.
  • A workshop involving stakeholders from both countries is scheduled for the second half of October.
  • This workshop indicates the continued progress in planning and implementing the CVMC, which could reshape trade dynamics.

-Source: The Hindu


June 2024