The pot of gold at the bottom of the Pole

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By Vijay Simha
Deputy Editor

THE HURRAHS first. A hundred years after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen did so, a team of eight Indian scientists and technicians reached the South Pole 1.30 am Monday Indian time and hoisted the Tricolour. One of the team members, Rasik Ravindra, Director of the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research, said the chill factor meant they did it in virtually minus 70 degrees Celsius. It took them nine days to get through 2,360 km from our research station in eastern Antarctica to the South Pole alone. Later, Ravindra said over a teleconference, “We feel on top of the world at the bottom here.” With Ravindra were Ajay Dhar, Javed Beg, Thamban Meloth, Asit Swain, Pradip Malhotra, Krishnamurthy and Surat Singh, names which we wouldn’t normally know but who we must record as the first Indian scientific team to reach the South Pole.

India spends so much money on being late that it robs it of the edge it desperately seeks
India spends so much money on being late that it robs it of the edge it desperately seeks
Illustration: Anand Naorem

What were they doing? Basically digging and collecting ice cores from frozen land believed to hold secrets on how the environment changed over a thousand years. India believes it must have an active presence in Antarctica, an area more than that of China and India put together, because it seeks insights into climate change and at least a toehold into the area’s vast energy resources. That is it. All the fuss, the enormous expenses, the heartaches, and the few successes are for a slice of the energy pie and an understanding of the consequences of climate change.

Why is this so important? Because India is in the throes of a massive conflict between development and climate change. India would need far more energy as it grows, and every bit of that energy consumed would leave its footprint on climate. This is a big issue in an already struggling India. Hence, the importance of the eight persons at South Pole.

Now, for the costs and skills. Estimates suggest that each expedition to Antarctica, not necessarily to the South Pole, costs India about Rs. 20 crore. There have been 27 expeditions until 2008. This makes it about Rs. 540 crore. Add to this, the cost of the South Pole expedition, which is a huge last mile, and the logistics of India’s Antarctic Programme. A little less than a thousand crore rupees have already been spent on the programme. The costs will escalate, for instance even the SUVs used in the South Pole cost about a crore each. Part of the costs is on a third research station, Bharti, after Maitri and Dakshin Gangotri. Gangotri has been abandoned after it sank partially, Maitri is functional and Bharti is to come up. Work happens about two months a year in Antarctica and so, it will drag, And then, we are 100 years late. Almost as part of our national tradition, we spend so much money on being late. This robs India of the edge it so desperately seeks.

For perspective, India’s Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs in 2009 approved Rs. 230 crore for the continuation of a project called ‘Polar Science: Expedition to Antarctica’ for the whole of the eleventh Five Year Plan. A simple thumb rule when you don’t have the money is that you don’t waste time wondering. If India’s purse is small, so will her Antarctica footprint. This is where the South Pole expedition comes in. Potentially, the team could get back with a wealth of information for India. But this is pure science. It’s not normally exciting for people. It’s where the cuts begin when funds dry up. It may not be wise, therefore, to build too much from this. Milestone it is, but too little, too late.

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