REGION: Rediscovering our ocean

When one thinks of Southasia as a physical entity, the image that immediately springs to mind is that of the physical landmass. And yet, on the southern shores of Southasia lies the third-largest ocean on the planet, a body of water that was actually named the 'Indian' before Partition, when the term represented most of the Subcontinent and outlying areas. Thus, there is plenty of reason to describe the Indian Ocean as 'our' ocean, a resource and heritage for the whole of Southasia – as also, of course, for the other regions on its rim, all the way from the Arabian Peninsula and the east coast of Africa to Southeast Asia.

Still, there is a veritable black hole in much of the Southasian consciousness about the Indian Ocean. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that, till recently, the ocean did not play a large role in most people's lives. For millennia, for instance, there were religious injunctions against travelling over the kala pani; and while a wide variety of goods were exported through the ocean routes, little was imported in return. The flows of peoples and goods that did take place were unmediated by states and kingdoms; and even when there was state sanction, these flows created plural societies enriched by traditions and goods from all over the Indian Ocean region.

This began to change, though, in colonial times, when the British became masters of much of the Subcontinent, largely facilitated by their control of the Indian Ocean. The Europeans were the first invaders who came over the seas, and the ocean increasingly began to grow in importance for the Subcontinent, as more and more goods and ideas flowed in both directions across the waters. Even today, though, our ocean does not figure much in the public consciousness at large, except when there is a natural calamity such as the 2004 tsunami, or when coastal security becomes the subject of public debate, as happened after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Cheap and easy air travel has meant that ocean routes are no longer important even for travel, thus reducing the ocean in the public mind to a mere body of water that one crosses to get wherever one is going – a flyover zone, and little more.

Though the gap in public consciousness remains, states in Southasia are waking up to the importance, and potential, of the water beyond the land. Its growing geo-strategic and trade-related prominence has led countries in the region – as also further afield, prominently China and the US – to increase their presence in Indian Ocean waters. New Delhi's ambitions have also soared, extending fully to the shores of Antarctica. Marine mineral exploration, including for oil, has acquired increasing importance, leading to standoffs between countries where resolution is, for the moment, being sought through amicable means.

Meanwhile, a new range of security problems has been emerging – piracy off the Somali coast; the export of 'terror' across the waters, as exemplified by the attempted coup in the Maldives by a group of mercenaries from Sri Lanka, or the 26/11 attackers who came from the Arabian Sea; and gun-running and smuggling. The increasing security, trade and developmental frameworks have hardened boundaries for the flow of goods as well as the migration of pilgrims and labourers. From an ocean where movement was free, the Indian Ocean is today divided by national boundaries and geopolitical jockeying for strategic control. And yet, it is still these waters that physically tie together much of our region, and must be used further for this purpose in future.

Unseen but common
For some, of course, the ocean remains a part of their everyday lives. Fisherfolk, for instance, even if they want to stick to their national boundaries, are often drawn by currents into neighbouring seas, where they are typically thrown into jail. This issue is particularly acute between Sri Lanka and India. Longstanding informal arrangements, whereby traditional fisherfolk could use the waters of the other country without hindrance, broke down due to the war in Sri Lanka. Today, they are further threatened by both the growing trawler fleet on the Indian side and the 'multi-day' boats on the Sri Lankan side, and the consequent overfishing. The end of the Sri Lankan war and the imminent resumption of ferry services between Rameswaram and Thalaimannar, as well as Tuticorin and Colombo, are positive steps. But such moves need to be enhanced by the lifting of immigration and visa requirements. People-to-people dialogue between the fisherfolk on both sides has provided a trigger for the resolution of existing problems, to the growing satisfaction of both sides, and a long-term solution is within grasp.

Still other problems are more difficult to see, but still impact on each individual country and community. Overfishing is only one of the many environmental problems in today's Indian Ocean. The ever-growing trade flows and mineral exploration have raised the risk of pollution; recently, an oil spill off the Mumbai coast that, though relatively small, adversely affected mangroves and fisheries. And then there is the danger of climate change, where rising sea levels threaten to inundate the Maldives and India's Lakshadweep islands, and low-lying coastlines such as in Bangladesh and West Bengal.

Furthermore, natural disasters like the tsunami, the cyclones that regularly hit Bangladesh and the east coast of India, as well as the tropical typhoon that caused devastation in Burma in 2008, are also not restricted by national boundaries. There is a shared history of common problems and, most of the time, it is the poor who suffer when such calamities strike.

There are grave matters to be discussed by the Southasian civil society when it comes to the Indian Ocean. As deep-sea drilling becomes a reality, is only the 'might is right' formula to be applied to the access of natural resources in international waters, or can we speak of a more equitable Southasia-wide sharing? Should India alone use its economic and military prowess to lay claims on Antarctica, or should this be a more 'civilisational' Southasian cooperative endeavour? Should India and its neighbours build a unitary vision for Indian Ocean security, rather than let neighbours cosying up to China's 'pearl necklace' ambitions out of fear of Big India? In all of this, there is a need for discussion among diplomats, academics and activists, leading perhaps towards a 'SAARC Law of the Sea'. This could not only regularise the Southasia vision for this great ocean, but also be sensitive to the interests of the other littorals from South Africa to Southeast Asia and Australia.

It is time, then, to re-recognise the importance of the Indian Ocean to the lives of the peoples of Southasia, and to exploit its potential for strengthening the economies and pluralism of the region. The countries in our region need to come together to work out mechanisms for equitable, amicable sharing of its resources. It is time, in collaboration with each other, to rediscover our ocean.

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