Sailing into choppy waters
At the beginning of this week, Indian and Pakistani officials began their joint survey of Sir Creek, a marshy, uninhabitable and even hostile area for any meaningful activity. The dispute they are looking into is about how to interpret the boundary line between Kutch and Sind. This involves interpretation of two maps, of 1914 and 1925, as well as the correspondence between the Commissioner of Sind and the Bombay Presidency. The joint survey is expected to end by March 15 and yield a common set of data that will be examined by the two sides thereafter.
As the initiator of the proposal for demarcation of maritime boundaries using a seaward approach and the Sir Creek area in 2002, it is heartening to note the momentum on the issue. The real crux lies in the seaward areas with implications on marine wealth, including possible oil and gas reserves.
Though Pakistan had promulgated its baseline under UNCLOS and the Indian government had lodged a formal protest against point ‘K’ on the eastern side of Sir Creek, the Indian baseline system has been waiting to be promulgated since 2002 due to lack of political will. This promulgation would have given us the desired negotiating strength.
Though Pakistan had all along argued the Sir Creek issue from historical status and the maps available, its sudden shift in favour of the joint survey should make the Indian government ponder as to its designs. The real reasons could be claiming a larger chunk of Sir Creek based on the satellite imagery and backed by the joint survey. It is a fact that the Sir Creek area is dynamic and even seasonal changes are common. Hence how are we going to decide on a permanent delimitation based on a joint survey? If the creek indeed has changed its navigable course, application of the ‘Thelwag’ principle of the centre of the navigable channel inside Sir Creek may well work out to India’s disadvantage. In order to avoid further complications, it would be desirable for India to keep the unquestionable historical data as the basis for negotiations (unless the joint survey conforms to the historical data) and decide on the common baseline point (CP) at the mouth of Sir Creek through a give-and-take approach.
Delimitation by the seaward approach, from EEZ (200 NM) to approximately 20 NM from Sir Mouth, using the undisputed baseline points of both countries based on their legally published navigational charts, should be enough to agree on 180 NM of maritime boundary. If both India and Pakistan baselines positions/claims are considered, the disputed area would be approximately 200 SKM. It would be prudent to divide this area into half, with the common baseline point at Sir Mouth (CP), agreed at the centre of the historical navigable channel.
In order to avoid local fishermen from trespassing into each other’s maritime limits, it would be desirable to also agree on construction of a lighthouse on an offshore platform at the agreed common baseline point with adequate range (say 20 NM) and clear arc of visibility along the demarcated maritime boundary line to warn the trespassing fishermen on either side and maintained by the Lighthouse Department. This will considerably ease the tension on both sides and enable the Indian coast guard and MSA (P) to function more effectively.
The general lighthouse under construction by India at the eastern entrance to Pir Sanai Creek based on the Godbole Committee’s recommendations should further help in surveillance of the area. India would also do well to promulgate its finalised baseline system for the entire coast without any delay.
Rear Admiral KR Srinivasan, AVSM (retd) is former chief hydrographer to the Government of India.