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Can India spearhead the Global South's blue economy?

November 16, 2023
tags:#India, #Blue economy, #Fisheries, #deep sea mining, #G20 Summit
by:Ayesha Khan
India's G20 presidency puts its vision for a resilient and green maritime sector in the limelight.

The G20 leaders’ summit held in September under India’s presidency highlighted the need to build a sustainable and resilient blue economy. It also emerged as a key priority area at the four preceding G20 Environment and Climate Sustainability Working Group (ECSWG) meetings in the country this year. 

The World Bank defines the term blue economy' as the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem." According to the United Nations, a blue economy prioritises all three pillars of sustainability in the ocean: environmental, economic, and social.

Why is the blue economy significant?

The ocean economy is worth between USD 3 to 6 trillion, as outlined by the United Nations Trade and Environment Review, 2023. It provides livelihood to over 3 billion people, primarily in coastal developing countries, who are dependent on it for food and income. Furthermore, approximately 80 per cent of world trade takes place through maritime shipping. 

Along with conventional maritime economic sectors such as fisheries, transport, aquaculture and coastal tourism, countries are now recognising the ocean’s potential in new growth avenues including ocean-based renewable energy, marine biotechnology and deep-sea exploration.

However, as the health of the world’s oceans deteriorates, the upswing in development activities has the potential to further worsen the well-being of the ocean. As a result, there has been a growing international focus on transitioning to a blue economy.

Oceans play a significant role in regulating the Earth’s temperatures and carbon dioxide levels. The High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy estimates that ocean-based mitigation options have the capacity to cut 21 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions required to achieve the climate goals outlined in the Paris Agreement by 2050.

Developing a blue economy also aligns with United Nations’ 14th Sustainable Development Goal, 'Life Below Water,' which aims to protect marine ecosystems and biodiversity while enhancing their resilience.    

India's blue economy

India has a 7,517-kilometre-long coastline, with nine coastal states and 1,382 islands. About 4 million fisherfolk are dependent on the coastal economy, making India the second largest fish-producing nation in the world. Its maritime industries such as trade, ship-building and cruise tourism yield significant economic output and offer employment opportunities. 

India's 12 major ports, along with 187 non-major ports, collectively manage approximately 1,400 million tons of cargo annually, with 95 per cent of the nation's trade by volume taking place via maritime routes. It is estimated that India’s blue economy accounts for roughly 4 per cent of the country’s GDP.

India has been engaging in international and regional dialogues concerning the blue economy, including at the G20 and the Global Maritime India Summit, which aims to nurture a blue economy with a focus on green ports, sustainable infrastructure, cruise tourism and global investments.  

In recent years, India launched a number of policies to boost its blue economy efforts. In 2021, it released the Draft National Policy for Blue Economy aiming to enhance the GDP contribution of the ocean economy, improve the lives of coastal communities and preserve marine biodiversity. The planning committee of the policy framework identified priority areas that India needs to develop in order to establish a successful blue economy. These include fisheries, tourism and shipping, among others.  

In 2020, a scheme was devised to engender a 'blue revolution' by promoting the practice of sustainable fisheries and empowering fishermen. The scheme provides financial assistance to improve fishing infrastructure like fish harbours, markets and fish processing units, and gives subsidies to fish farmers to enhance fish production through expansion and diversification. 

In 2021, India’s government launched the Deep Ocean Mission for exploring the deep-sea environment for mining and conservation of deep-sea biodiversity. The initiative intends to develop technologies like manned submersibles and underwater robotics to harness the living and non-living resources from the deep-oceans.

In that same year, the Maritime India Vision, 2030 (MIV 2030) was introduced - a strategic blueprint designed to expedite the decade-long growth of the maritime sector, with a focus on establishing a sustainable and environmentally friendly maritime industry.

Under MIV 2030, Over 150 initiatives have been developed to focus on port-driven industrialisation and creating safe and sustainable ports to address growing trade volume needs.  

But while India's policies pertaining to the blue economy are ambitious, its coastline remains vulnerable to developmental activities, which inevitably affect the livelihoods of local communities.

In the state of Maharashtra, which is located on the west coast, the ongoing Mumbai Coastal Road Project sparked numerous protests by fishermen living along the coast of Arabian Sea.

The project, which is constructed on reclaimed land, is a 10.5-km stretch of freeway designed to ease the city’s traffic problem. But it has adversely affected local artisanal fisher communities.

A recent study points out that the project has led to a 50 per cent reduction in the average income and daily catch of fisherfolk. 

Furthermore, India's coastal communities confront significant challenges arising from natural disasters intensified by climate change. Recent events, including cyclones Fani, Gaja and Hudhud, along with severe floods, have wrought extensive devastation on the country's vulnerable coastal states.

A 2019 study conducted by Aparna Roy from the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED) suggests that India must tackle threats to the ocean resulting from human activities while simultaneously undertaking new development initiatives. The rise in maritime economic projects, Roy argues, is anticipated to amplify greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, thereby exacerbating the vulnerability of coastal ecosystems.

In September of this year, a 48,000 sq ft cruise terminal was inaugurated at Visakhapatnam Port in the state of Andhra Pradesh, designed to cater to both domestic and international cruise tourism along the east coast of the country. Cruise passenger traffic in India has seen an exponential rise from 126,00 in 2015-16 to 468,000 in 2019-20. To meet the soaring demand for coastal tourism, the Indian government intends to open three more international cruise ports. 

Commenting on the repercussions of extensive port development and coastal tourism on ocean ecology, Naveen Namboothri, founder trustee of the Dakshin Foundation, a Bangalore-based NGO focusing on environmental sustainability and social justice, expressed in an article, "Our coastlines are eroding. Unless this mammoth development is done within a very precautionary framework, taking coastal vulnerabilities into account, it will complicate things and create new concerns."

Dr Nilanjan Ghosh, director of development studies at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), emphasised the urgent need for the Indian government to address critical issues like illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, marine plastic pollution and sea-level rise while crafting policies for economic practices in the ocean.

"While India is emerging as an economically powerful nation, the growth should not just be measured in quantities of how much the economy is growing each year, but should also focus on how equitable and sustainable the growth is," he told FairPlanet.

Tackling challenges

To address concerns such as marine litter, biodiversity loss and the livelihood challenges faced by coastal communities due to human-induced economic activities, the four G20 Environment and Climate Sustainability Working Group (ECSWG) meetings held in India this year highlighted the significance of ecological restoration and the implementation of Marine Spatial Planning (MSP).

According to the United Nations, MSP is a demonstrated and effective policy process that brings together public and private stakeholders to analyse and allocate ocean space for competing human activities in coastal and marine areas. 

In February 2023, India launched its first Marine Spatial Planning framework in Puducherry in collaboration with Norway under the Indo-Norway Integrated Ocean Initiative. The initiative aims to create a framework that will identify appropriate sites for new developments in order to minimise conflicts between economic sectors and ensure that maritime human activities take place in a safe, efficient and sustainable manner.

With its considerable experience in the field of MSP, Norway, as part of the initiative, offers technical assistance in formulating frameworks for activities like tourism, energy, transportation, fisheries, and aquaculture. The goal is to ensure sustainable development in these locations without causing degradation to the marine environment.

While India has also made some progress in the use of Marine Spatial Planning in states like Odisha and West Bengal under the ongoing Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) programme, a nation-wide implementation of MSP has yet to take place. 

The ECSWG also deliberated on the imperative to promote the circular economy model, wherein all forms of waste are reintegrated into the economy for reuse, recycling or refurbishment rather than being discarded.  

Paving the path for a Blue Economy in the Global South

While the concept of the blue economy revolves around the sustainable utilisation of ocean resources, it carries different connotations in the Global North and the Global South. Dr Ghosh from the Observer Research Foundation argues that in the Global North, the concerns that blue economy policies focus on are largely linked to ocean health, marine ecosystems, oil spills and related issues. In the Global South, a large portion of the population, particularly in low-income coastal communities, remains directly dependent on the ocean's ecosystem, not only for income but also for basic sustenance. 

"The impact of the ocean resources on human society and livelihoods is where the distinction in connotation of the blue economy between the Global North and Global South lies," he said. 

Prioritising the resilience of vulnerable communities, he stated, remains a central concern in formulating the blue economy policy framework for India, mirroring the concerns of the broader Global South. Ghosh further argued that placing emphasis on the blue economy during India's G20 presidency this year presents an opportunity for the country to spearhead a just transition in the Global South.

blue economy lessons from around the world

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) describes the ocean as the next great economic frontier, offering potential for wealth and economic growth, employment and innovation. It also emphasizes that oceans serve as alternative sites for meeting energy needs, encompassing sources such as wind energy, hydropower and tidal energy.

According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), offshore wind power has the potential to generate more than 18 times the current global electricity demand, and countries worldwide are acknowledging the imperative to transition to a blue economy.

Countries like Australia, Brazil, the UK, the US and Russia have established dedicated national ocean policies with defined outcomes and allocated budgets. The European Union, as part of the European Green Deal, initiated its blue economy plan in 2021, concentrating on climate change mitigation, circular economy principles and biodiversity preservation.

Meanwhile, Scandinavian countries like Norway and Denmark have implemented policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the shipping industry. Norway, under The Green Shipping Programme, seeks to make the Norwegian fleet climate-neutral by 2050. Similarly, Denmark’s Towards Zero initiative strives for shipping climate neutrality by 2050.

In Australia, the blue economy is predominantly characterised by offshore aquaculture and renewable energy production, aligning with its commitment to sustainably manage 100 per cent of its national waters by 2025, as pledged at the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. In China, the emphasis of the blue economy is on fisheries, tourism and transport.

While nations are globally transitioning to the blue economy at varying rates, the process is inherently challenging. The United Nations notes that financing the blue economy and the absence of modern infrastructure for this transition pose significant challenges, especially for developing economies.

Ghosh emphasised that while there are valuable lessons to be gleaned from countries in the Global North and Small Island Developing States (SIDS), India, given its distinctive geographical location, must devise strategies tailored to the specific needs of its population and ocean ecosystem.

Image by Kamal Preet Kaur.

Article written by:
Ayesha Khan
Embed from Getty Images
The World Bank defines the term ‘blue economy’ as the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.
Embed from Getty Images
Along with conventional maritime economic sectors such as fisheries, transport, aquaculture and coastal tourism, countries are now recognising the ocean’s potential in new growth avenues like ocean-based renewable energy, marine biotechnology and deep-sea exploration.
Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, heading the development studies vertical at Observer Research Foundation (ORF)
Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, heading the development studies vertical at Observer Research Foundation (ORF)