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The Exclusive Economic Zone of the Seas around India

Following the enforcement of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1994 a new form of national economic jurisdiction was established globally to the seas extending 200 nautical miles from the coasts of sovereign states. Article 55 of the document defines the legal regime of the Exclusive Economic Zone. The article defines an area marked as an Exclusive Economic Zone (or EEZ) as – “The exclusive economic zone is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea, subject to the specific legal regime established in this Part, under which the rights and jurisdiction of the coastal State and the rights and freedoms of other States are governed by the relevant provisions of this Convention” (UNCLOS, 2001). The EEZ for India is one such maritime area extending from India’s coastline where India has economic and jurisdictional control subject to the clauses of UNCLOS.

Sustainability and Living Marine Resources

In 1976 India enacted the Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and Other Maritime Zones Act, 1976 that followed its incorporation in Article 297 of Chapter III, Part XII of the Constitution with the introduction of the concept of the EEZ. By June 1997, India had ratified to the UNCLOS III segment of the treaty, which signified its agreement with the region specific agenda of the treaty. The Act places between 2.2 to 2.8 million square km of sea under India’s jurisdiction, the boundaries however, are not entirely clear cut, such as the critical one between Indian and Pakistani waters, which includes the Sir Creek area (R.R. Chaudhury, undated). This can create numerous ambiguities among vessels moving across areas such as this, which will be discussed later.

Fig: The EEZ for India
Source: NIO

Activities in the EEZ for India

According to the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) (2018), India has a coastline of about 7,500 km, and the EEZ for India that was obtained as per the UNCLOS covers an area of 2.172 million sq km. India has exclusive jurisdiction over the resources present in this zone including navigation of seafaring trade and transport vessels in this area. However, geo-scientific mapping of the EEZ for India has not yet been completely applied. This is important for systematic scientific research on the EEZ for India to take place along with knowledge and preparedness for environmental hazards and also for social issues such as regarding the socio-economic well-being of people living along India’s coastline.

Several other countries have initiated systematic mapping and exploration programs of their EEZs, which is important for sustainable practices in the seas included in the EEZs. In the XIth Plan period, the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) had initiated the process of mapping the EEZ for India in collaboration with other national institutions such as the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR), the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), the Geological Survey of India (GSI) and various universities.

As per the NIO, the first priority in these studies will be physiographic mapping the EEZ comprising mainly of sedimentological studies. This will be followed by paleoclimatic studies that can look into Himalayan tectonics and hydrological studies including looking into the characteristics of the Monsoons. Continuously mineral resource availability is also being assessed. The idea is to study the integrated evolution of the EEZ for India. According to the MoES, till January 19th, 2018, about 30 per cent of the deep water regions (>500m depth) had been mapped.

Fishing over much of coastal India is seen as a source of budget-friendly nutrition. While local fishermen are mired in disputes with mechanized fishing, the latter is responsible for most of the over-exploitation in fishing in the EEZ for India. P. S. B. R. James (2014) reports that out of a potential in marine fishery resources of 3.92 million tonnes, presently about 3.2 million tonnes are being exploited on an average mostly in coastal areas.

  1. Mathew (2009) concluded a study for UNCLOS in 2009 that reported the depletion of the share of marine fishing output as compared to the inland fishing output in India by 2005-06. The study also noted depletion in marine stock landings in 2005 as compared to 2000. Mathew attributes this to a depletion in marine populations, which in turn is initiated by more efficient fishing practices combined with lower market prices that in turn leads to a cycle demanding even greater efficiency due to large amounts of wastage.

In regard to fishing in the EEZ for India, Mathew reports that certain measures have been instituted. The measures that have been adopted include (A. Mathew, 2009) –

  • Legislation has been enacted by the Centre over the regulation of fishing and fisheries by Indian fishing vessels operating in the EEZ.
  • Fishing within areas under the EEZs cannot occur without the mandatory approval of the Central government.
  • Enforcement of the Maritime Zones of India (Regulation of fishing by foreign vessels) Act, 1981, that prevents fishing by a foreign vessel within a country’s EEZ unless a licence or permit is obtained from the Central Government to the contrary.
  • The Comprehensive Marine Fishing Policy, 2004, that establishes guidelines for sustainable fishing with legislative support in this regard, and also towards the interests of small-scale traditional fishermen.

The Indian Ocean also has its fair share of piracy, with hundreds of attacks between 2008 and 2012. The year 2011 alone witnessed 237 attacks (The Indian Express, 2017). Piracy is most common close to countries with a food or resource crisis, such as Somalia. There has been a sharp decline in piracy however, since international navies stepped up patrols in an ongoing battle. A related issue is poaching and illegal trade in marine goods such as sea horses and sea cucumbers (A. Vashishtha, 2014), which are prised not for nutritional value but for commercial reasons. Organized networks are reported that trade in threatened marine species. There are no traces of species left in many areas of the sea around the oceans of India.

Other than piracy and poaching in the EEZ for India, another issue arises – that of freedom of navigation. Putting an EEZ in place does not mean that vessels other than those sanctioned by the Indian government do not navigate the waters comprising the EEZ for India. Although the EEZ for India is under the control and jurisdiction of the Government of India, there is continued traditional navigation for instance, among many types of vessels between the high seas and also third state zones of jurisdiction and the EEZ for India, with navigation collectively intersecting all three.

What is at stake thus are conflicting interests in operation in these waters. There are significant issues for states to ensure that no illegal activity takes place in their EEZs. Contrary to the law books, substantial unauthorized activity takes place in EEZs and maritime states can often come into conflict over a clash of interests in designated EEZ territories. Many Pacific island nations have often complained about unauthorized fishing by major countries like Korea and Japan in their designated EEZs (FAO, 2018). Similar disputes occur between India and Pakistan, with many innocent fishermen becoming prisoners due to wandering into hostile territory.

The UNCLOS is a relatively nascent document in the era of nation states, and there is a pressing need for an alternative to balance the resource claims of states in EEZs with freedom of navigation. Freedom of the seas cannot be safeguarded at all instances when you consider that no landmarks as such exist in the high seas and one would need to rely on objects such as buoys or on modern navigational technology to learn about territorial jurisdiction in navigation. Placing fishing extraction almost fully under the purview of states can also sometimes raise questions about the efficiency of sustainable extraction of fishing resources within EEZs. More complete research and management thus are required if we are to come to a clear understanding of the scope of activities taking place in the EEZ for India.

Sustainable Water Transport and Low Emission Fuels

Extension of the EEZ for India

 Since the start of the present decade, the Indian government has been petitioning the United Nations (UN) to accept its claim of extending the EEZ for India to about double its present area. This has been initiated with the objective of acquiring greater access to off-shore resources such as oil and natural gas. In 2010 India submitted to the UNCLOS with data spanning over 6000 pages, over extending the limits of its coastal EEZ from 200 nautical miles to about 350 nautical miles (P. Sunderarajan, 2011). According to the provisions of the UNCLOS, a coastal state can seek the extension of its EEZ if it can lay a claim to having an extended continental shelf around it running a distance beyond 200 nautical miles. This in fact along with the exploration of its off-shore resources was the basis on which India carried forward its demand.

Extending the EEZ for India is difficult when India shares maritime boundaries with its neighbouring countries such as the Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Apart from these immediate neighbours, there are also many other seafaring nations nearby such as Myanmar, Indonesia and Thailand whose vessels can transgress into the EEZ for India. India however, has been party to the UNCLOS since 1995 and the UNCLOS has provided many contradicting claims in terms of the extended continental shelf among the EEZs of nations. Most of these contradictions arise due to the exclusive claims of nations over their overlapping EEZs keeping in mind off-shore resource exploitation and strategic aims. These disputes are exacerbated with the discovery of new off-shore resources as exploration continues over the various EEZs in the region and beyond (R. Srivastava & A.K. Akela, 2017).


The EEZ for India thus presents many internal contradictions whose effects are both hampered by insufficient mapping and research and also exacerbated with new off-shore resources becoming known as knowledge of the EEZ for India expands. The management of the EEZ for India can also be said to be insufficient when no sufficient markers or patrols exists that can sufficiently monitor the EEZ for India against foreign transgressions.

Without the wisdom of research and the thoroughness of management, the UNCLOS as a legal document will remain largely ineffectual. This is especially important when you consider that large scale fishing extraction combined with piracy and poaching is severely limiting India’s ability to fish sustainably in India’s EEZ. Conservation is difficult when research or management cannot make a legal document pervasive. Such would also ease the case for the extension of the EEZ for India beyond 200 nautical miles provided that the argument for India’s continental shelf holds. Apart from strengthening the efficiency of each of the problem areas as described above, the EEZ for India can come to represent a new domain of policy as regards the environment where sustainable practices can be imbibed without the shadow of wasteful developmental practices.


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