AN INDIAN undersea secret has been kept so well over the past four years that even MPs who got wind of it during the monsoon session of Parliament were not allowed to ask questions.
In Delhi, discussions currently on between oceanographers and diplomats, from the new Ministry of Earth Sciences and the Ministry of External Affairs, mark the last stages of an exercise that began in 2002 with secretive ocean experiments that will eventually allow India to lay claim to vast undersea reserves of oil and minerals.
Dozens of top scientists from a clutch of national laboratories have used cutting-edge equipment — securing the first digital images of a remote undersea realm up to 8 km below the seabed in undisclosed locations — to collect data in advance of an international law that will allow a band of about 50 nations to claim territory up to the edges of the continental shelves on which they ride.
Like most nations, India currently claims seabed territory up to the current limit of 200 nautical miles, or 370 km, offshore.
The frenetic activity has not come too soon: this year, France, Ireland, Spain and the UK sought rights to jointly exploit an Ireland-sized zone in the Atlantic seabed. Russia, Australia and New Zealand have also submitted claims.
India is guarding the exact figure of extended continental shelf it will claim — neighbouring nations too are preparing claims — to extend undersea landholdings and explore what an official called "the final frontier" of vast oil and energy reserves unclaimed under the seabed.
“It is a significant number,” was the only comment from P.S. Goel, secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences. Surveyors travelling 32,000 km in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal have finally completed their work, and the two ministries hope to finalise the plan within two months, so it can go to the cabinet this year.
India has a deadline of 2009 to file claims before the UN's New York-based Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) — for rights over the natural resources beneath, if it can prove its seabed is a natural extension of the outer edge of the subcontinental landmass.
"At present production, India's oil and gas reserves will last 30 years," said V.K. Sibal, director-general for hydrocarbons, Ministry of Petroleum, Delhi. "Extending the continental shelf will help India find resources for sustainable development."
For 20 months between 2002 and 2004, scientists conducted India's first-ever offshore experiments bouncing sound waves off the seabed to check the thickness of seabed sediments, data that the CLCS requires.
"The process will lead to stability in the oceans," Peter Croker, chairman, CLCS, told HT from New York. Croker quoted an International Seabed Authority estimate that as of 2000 India's extended continental shelf was estimated to hold 646 million tonnes of manganese nodules and metals, two billion barrels equivalent of oil and gas, and four billion barrels equivalent of gas hydrate. Currently India produces about 241 million barrels of oil every year.
According to UN guidelines, nations can claim land up to 350 nautical miles, about 648 km, offshore after proving the landmass geology matches that of the continental shelf.
Asked to comment on conflicts of interest in the Asian region, Croker said the CLCS could not consider a submission where a dispute existed. "The commission has no role in the delimitation of the continental shelf between neighbouring states, only in the establishment of its outer limit," he said.