A glimpse of the Antarctic Mission: Retracing India’s journey to the Great White Continent


By Gaurav Sharma

There are many places on Earth which do not fit the conventional definition of ‘popular’ tourism places.

Topping the list of these unconventional places is Antarctica.

Nearly twice the size of Australia, Antarctica, on any ‘normal’ day, is the coldest, driest and the windiest place located at the highest average elevation among all continents on Earth.

The vast wilderness and isolated grandeur of the Southern landmass has always been an appealing attraction to the curious eyes of human explorers.

Legal standing of Antarctica

Members of the Antarctic Treaty
Members of the Antarctic Treaty

Geopolitically, Antarctica is governed by The Antarctic Treaty, an international legislation signed by more than 50 countries, representing the large majority of the world’s population.

The treaty underscores the contention that the great white continent is too huge and too unique to be governed by any one nation.

The 1961 treaty holds Antarctica as a scientific preserve, bans military activities and sanctions scientific investigations while highlighting the importance of minimal human activities in the region.

India acceded to the treaty on August 1, 1983, becoming its thirteenth Consultative member.

India’s foray into the Great White

Indian scientists, explorers and researchers haven’t been left behind in the quest for discovering the unique biodiversity and environmental physiology of Antarctica.

Lieutenent Ram Charan

Lieutenent Ram Charan, an Indian Navy Meteorologist, was the first Indian to touch ground in Antarctica while accompanying an Australian expedition in 1960.

The Indian flag, however, was unfurled in Antarctica for the first time in the beginning years of 1980s, cascading into a series of other Southern Ocean expeditions.

Dr Syed Zahoor Qasim, a leading marine biologist led India’s first expedition to the frozen continent, hoisting the tricolour on the white expanse on January 9, 1982.

Breaking the monopoly of the rich and developed nations, the fourteen member team led by Dr Qasim made the world take notice of India as a leading explorative nation.

Till date more than 30 expeditions to the Southern ice-mass have been successfully organized by India.

Establishing Research Stations

Dr Syed Zahoor Qasim

After leading India’s first expedition to Antarctica, Dr Qasim successfully organized and guided seven other tours from 1981 to 1988.

  • Dakshin Gangotri: Located 2500 Kms from the South Pole, Dakshin Gangotri was India’s first scientific base station. Set up by an 81 member team, the base station comprised entirely of indigenous equipment and was powered by solar energy. The station was used as an automatic weather recording station apart from serving as a test station for radio waves and an observatory for physical oceanography.

  • Maitri: India’s second permanent research base in Antarctica was built in 1989. Maitri is situated atop a mountainous region called Schirmacher Oasis. The station is endowed with modern facilities to carry out research in various disciplines such as  biology, earth sciences, glaciology, atmospheric sciences, meteorology etc. After the establishment of Maitri, India achieved the aim of mapping the Oasis and also built its own freshwater lake, Lake Priyadarshini in the region.

  • Bharti: India commissioned its third research facility in Antarctica on a rocky promontory fringing the Prydz Bay between Stornes and Broknes peninsula in the Larsemann Hills area. Bharti focuses on oceanographic studies and the phenomenon of continental breakup, Additionally, it also facilitates research to refine the current understanding of the Indian subcontinent’s geological history.

Who organizes India’s Antarctic program?

Indian Antarctic Program

The National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research(NCAOR), a government body functioning under the Ministry of Earth Sciences controls India’s Antarctic program.

The NCAOR, in collaboration with the Department of Ocean Development, selects members of the tours.

Trainees have to undergo thorough medical tests and acclimatization trips on the Himalayas before being selected. They are then subsequently trained in firefighting, survival tactics and environmental ethics.

Commitment to Antarctic protection

Apart from being a party in the Antarctica Treaty System, India has signed the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). In 1997, India also ratified the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty thus reaffirming India’s commitment to protection of the Antarctic environment.

The chair to CCAMLR has been occupied by India in 1998 for a period of two years.

Furthermore, India collaborates with major global organizations; the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, Regional Committee of Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in Coastal Indian Ocean (IOCINDIO), & International Seabed Authority (ISBA).

Today, India stands in good stead with the major superpowers while crafting out its own unique scientific, research space in Antarctica.

At the same time, India has ensured that the pressing issue of environmental degradation due to human activity is addressed through its own example of international cooperation.