Updated: Jun 15
The strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of India's blue economy.
What is a Blue Economy?
A blue economy refers to the use of marine resources to fuel economic growth and increase prosperity. India has a 7,517 km long coastline with nine coastal states and 1382 islands. The country has 12 major ports and 187 non-major ports, handling about 1400 million tons of cargo every year. We have access to vast aquatic resources but we aren’t harnessing its complete potential. The Economic Advisory Council (‘the council’) has formulated a draft policy framework for a blue economy. The framework envisions ‘conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development in line with Sustainable Development Goal 14, Life under Water.
An Overview: India’s Blue Economy Strategy
In light of the recessionary impact of Covid-19, the council has explored an alternative to the mainland-based economy to provide an impetus to economic growth. The policy hinges on a ‘Sagarmala scheme’ wherein ‘Coastal Economic Units’ will transform coastal towns into hubs of trade and manufacturing. To understand the actual impact of the policy, it must be analysed from various facets – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats - or SWOT.
Diversified Development: The Blue Economy has identified 7 priority areas, some of which include Ocean Governance, Marine Spatial Planning, and aquaculture. These areas are often neglected in mainland-centric development discourse. The establishment of multiple Coastal Economic Units will lead to equitable development as opposed to congestion in a few main ports.
Sustainable Principles of Development: The text of the policy indicates a commitment to sustainable principles. It calls for the formulation of a detailed Plastic Elimination and National Marine Litter Policy. It recommends the expansion of the ‘Swacch Bharat’ campaign to ‘Swachh Prithvi, Swacch Sagar’ to encourage holistic waste management.
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Lack of Legislation: The Policy calls for the development of Blue Economy oriented legislation in the medium term, the exact time frame for which is not defined in the policy. However, considering the various stakeholders involved, a bill could take significant time to be enacted. This may lead to the initiation of unregulated development. Courts may also take substantial time to resolve disputes in the absence of legal precedents.
Hazardous Ship-Breaking Activities: The policy talks extensively about enhancing India’s ship-building capacity. However, it does not address how these newly built ships will be safely broken down after their useful life. Ships at the end of their lives are considered hazardous waste and are often sent to Alang, Gujarat to be broken by cheap labour. Shipbreaking yards have deplorable working conditions as workers face asbestos exposure and burn from onboard gasoline.
Renewable Energy: The policy lays special focus on offshore wind energy projects. The policy has identified the Institute of Engineering and Ocean Technology (IEOT), IIT Madras & the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) to collaboratively engineer offshore wind farms. This will also optimise indigenization under the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ programme.
Tourism: The policy highlights eco-tourism & cruise tourism as a means to boost earnings and employment in coastal areas. The Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate change has rolled out ‘Blue Flag standards in 13 nominated pilot beaches across coastal States/UTs in India. The certification scheme aims to improve beach clean-up and make beaches pollution-free. In light of these efforts, eight beaches in India have already been awarded the coveted ‘Blue Flag’ certification by an eminent international jury, which comprises members of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
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Gender Equality in Employment: Women make up most of the workforce in coastal fisheries. Their contribution is often overlooked as they are in the lowest-paid and least-protected jobs. Women are not socially expected to fish at sea due to the perceived dangers involved. Instead, they are heavily involved in shore-based activities like segregation, cleaning, and the sale of fish. Coastal conservation and tourism are often community-led initiatives that give women a chance to move from ancillary to decision-making roles.
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Innovation in fishing practices: The fishing community will get enhanced access to capital and technology. Collaboration with the private sector will give them access to sophisticated vessels for mid-sea and deep-sea fishing. The policy seeks to reform fish auctioning by introducing electronic auctioning systems. Micro-insurance will be popularized by involving Self Help Groups to cover multiple risks faced by the fishermen, including loss of life, loss of craft, and gear.
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Deep Sea Mining: The International Seabed Authority (ISA) issued multiple licenses to mine 1.2 million square kilometres of the seabed—one-third the size of India. India intends to use its licenses to look for polymetallic sulphides that are rich in copper, zinc, gold and silver in the Indian Ocean Basin. India will also take a lead role in the exploration of cobalt-rich Sea Mount FerroManganese Crust (SFMC). The latest estimate from the ISA says deep sea mining will be commercially viable only if about three million tonnes are mined per year. Despite this, the mining frenzy continues on the basis of projected revenues of billions of dollars. Mining will introduce light to an environment where life thrives in darkness and will create massive swirls of debris and sediments. This may cause certain species to go extinct before they are even known to science. Mining expeditions will have a devastating impact on ecosystems that are already stressed and will have little or no oversight as the ISA is an autonomous body.
Displacement of local communities: Land grabbing in the name of tourism and industrialisation is bound to displace local communities. Landscapes will change to make way for ship-building yards and waterfronts. Indigenous settlements are an easy target for displacement without adequate provision for resettlement. Moreover, if control falls in the hands of large corporations, the sharing of profits will be disproportionate and the locals will be reduced to a source of cheap labour. In spite of being exploited for their knowledge of local resources, they may have little or no say in the eventual use of resources. Local community leaders may be forced to switch from a need-based to a greed-based relationship with the oceans.
While the draft policy has some promising aspects, it also raises innumerable red flags. Doing lip service to principles of sustainability without actual execution is simply a case of ‘greenwashing’ or rather ‘blue-washing’. Unregulated deep sea mining is bound to be disastrous and result in extreme marine pollution and loss of biodiversity through the extinction of marine species, emission of toxic by-products & destruction of pristine ocean habitats.
The global North will continue to exert political force to extract from resource-rich nations of the South. The North has an appetite for seafood, extensive fishing subsidies, and fishing trawlers in southern waters. This will grab disproportionate resources compared to local fishermen of the south who operate on a sustainable scale.
Even as we chase new technology and developmental avenues, we must keep in mind the Cree proverb:
“When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.”
Explained Desk, The Indian Express. (2020, October 19). Explained: What is Blue Flag certification, awarded to 8 Indian beaches? The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-what-is-the-blue-flag-certification-awarded-to-eight-indian-beaches-6722252/
Pacha, A. (2019, August 4). Explained | What is India’s Deep Ocean Mission? The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/why-is-india-pulled-to-deep-sea-mining/article28809029.ece
Economic Advisory Council (September 2020). Blue Economy Draft Policy Framework. https://incois.gov.in/documents/Blue_Economy_policy.pdf