28. Seabed Mineral Wealth of India and its Security

(Published in Defence and Security Alert  Dec 2013)

Seabed Mineral Wealth of India and its Security

The Indian Ocean region’s states are very rich in mineral resources; they contain ~80 % of the world’s diamond, 40% of gold, and 60% of Uranium deposits. These estimates may well be dwarfed by the exploration and discoveries in the mineral rich seabed of their extensive EEZs. India’s EEZ comprises of ~2.172 million km along and around its coastline of ~7500 km. Further India is likely to gain 1.5 million sq km of EEZ as it has placed survey details pertaining to the extent of its continental shelf before the International Sea Bed Authority (ISBA). The continental shelf area of India is approximately 3, 80,000 sq km and the shelf area of the Andaman and Nickobar islands is ~ 30,000 sq km. This implies that more than 75% of the EEZ lies beyond the depth of 200 meters. On the western coast of Maharashtra, the shelf extends to ~ 180 nautical miles, whereas on the eastern coast it is much narrower.

Major issues relating to maritime security in the Indian Ocean range from security of the energy arteries, to piracy, drug & human trafficking, illegal fishing, gunrunning, environmental issues and terrorism. However, the aim of this article is to emphasize upon the seabed mineral resources, which have been less talked about in the media, and to bring out gaps in the comprehensive security of the Indian EEZ.

Review of Offshore Mineral Exploration


Indian agencies had carried out reconnaissance mapping of ~85.7% of offshore area within the territorial waters (TW) and >98% of the seabed within the EEZ by March 2011.The collection of offshore data is carried out by many agencies such as the Geological survey of India (GSI), Indian Navy, ONGC, National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) and departments of Ministry of Earth Sciences. The collection of data is carried out by the agencies for scientific, economic, and strategic purposes. The main task of GSI is seabed mapping and exploration of non-living resources in the EEZ and in international waters. GSI has till date surveyed 18,48,318 sq km out of 18,64,900 sq km in the EEZ beyond the territorial waters. It has surveyed 19,76,798 sq km (EEZ +TW) out of a total of 20.14,900 sq km (EEZ +TW).

Placer deposits. These are accumulation of valuable minerals formed by gravity during sedimentary processes, the survey has found two promising zones namely,  210 sq km on the west coast (Off Aleppy-Quilon, Trivendrum-Kanyakumari and Ratnagiri) and 923 sq km on the East Coast (Off Andhra and Orissa Coast).

Relict Marine Sand . Survey of various blocks off Kollam, Ponnani, Beypore, Chavakkad etc have confirmed the presence of relict sand in an area of 13750 sq km.

Lime Mud Deposits. These have been found at a depth of 180-1200 m off Gujarat coast and at depth of 100-200 m off Andhra Coast. These have also been found in the continental margin of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Andhra and Gujarat coasts.

Phosphatic Sediments. These have been found at depths of 200-1000 m off Gujarat coast and at a depth of 100-200 m SE of Chennai. These contain 15-20% P2O5.

Phosphorite nodules. The concentration of P2O5 in nodules is between 15.6 – 18.6% and is 9.8% in phosphate rich lime mud. Oolites and Phosphate(>5%) in lime deposits have been found off Vengurla. The nodules along with lime mud have been found at depths of 300-550 m off Gujarat coast. Phosphorite in nodules has been found off Nagapattinam at depths of 45-412 m.

Manganese Nodules. Ferro manganese encrustations have been located off Batti Malva in the Andaman Sea. Micro-manganese nodules have been found west of Lakshadweep at depths of 2800-4300 m. The polymetallic nodules and polymetallic massive sulphides (PMS) are of great interest to nations. The PMS are found in localized sites along hot springs in underwater volcanic ranges and contain copper, gold, silver, iron, and zinc. The polymetallic nodules, covering vast areas are found at 4 – 5 km of depth and contain cobalt, nickel, manganese, and iron.

India had received rights to explore these nodules in 1987. It has established two mine sites after exploring an area of ~4 million sq miles. China too has been active in this region and its company China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA) has been allowed by the International Seabed Authority to undertake PMS exploration in an area of 10,000 sq km in South- West Indian Ocean.

Rights of a Coastal State w.r.t. EEZ

Within its EEZ, a coastal state has sovereign rights for exploring, exploiting, conserving, and managing natural living and non-living resources of the waters superjacent to the seabed and its sub soil. Further, it can exploit and explore production of energy from water, winds, and currents. The EEZ remains an open zone with freedom of innocent passage for all. The EEZ legal regime is  different from that governing territorial waters and high seas, and contains certain characteristics of both.

However, in a recent judgment regarding the Enrica Lexie (Italian marines) case, the Supreme Court of India has declared the region between the contiguous zone and the 200 nautical miles in to the sea as ‘High Seas’. The Supreme court has said that Article 97 of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is not applicable as shooting was a criminal action and not a navigation accident.

China has been maintaining its right to regulate foreign military activities in its EEZ, as it feels that it has the right to prevent any activity that threatens its economic interests or security. It also asserts that its domestic laws have jurisdiction in its EEZ. The Chinese law requires foreign entities to obtain prior approval to carryout resource exploitation, fishing, and marine research. As far as military activities are concerned, it holds them as prejudicial to ‘peaceful purposes’ provision of the Laws of the Seas Convention. This interpretation has led to a number of minor standoffs between it and the United States of America.

India is also one of the countries, which mandate prior permission before any maintenance, or repairs are carried out to the submarine cables running on the floor of its EEZ.

With respect to military activities by foreign militaries in the EEZ, India along with Bangladesh, Brazil, Cape Verde, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Uruguay require obtaining of prior permission. North Korea has prohibited any such activity within 50 nm of its territory and Iran has completely prohibited the same.

As far as oceanographic surveying is considered, again some countries require prior permission, in fact, China registered protests against  the activities of USNS Bowditch and India against HMS Scott and USNS Bowditch, which were gathering military data by undertaking oceanographic survey. Coupling the above with increased proliferation of submarines in the region, the instances of clandestine underwater and ASW surveys would only increase. There are bound to be incidents involving intruder submarines in future and states would therefore be monitoring activities in their EEZs diligently.

EEZ Security Components

Two essential components of effective EEZ security management comprise of surveillance and deterrence. Some of the drawbacks of EEZ surveillance systems in use today include; inability of patrol boats to carry out surveillance, since their missions are area denial, SAR or interdiction; UAV’s have much better sensor packages but need a large infrastructure for 24/7 surveillance ; HF radars are affordable but need very large areas for installation; Microwave radars suffer from limited horizon; and  patrol aircraft incur huge costs. Since radars have difficulty in automatically  identifying unknown and devious small vessels and the electro optic systems are heavily weather dependent, there is requirement for add on sensors to carry out effective monitoring of EEZ. In fact, a complete EEZ surveillance system should be able to cater to all the facets of EEZ activity be it , terrorism, drug and human trafficking, piracy, smuggling, coastal security, Search and rescue, sea traffic control, pollution control, illegal fishing, illegal arms supply and exploitation of natural resources of solar, air, wave, minerals, oil and gas. For such an extensive requirement  a cooperative, synergetic and system of systems approach between various agencies involved would be paramount.

The surveillance platforms would include the following:-

-Unmanned undersea vehicles, sonar arrays, patrol submarines, and other under water sensors.


-Remotely operated vehicles, unmanned surface vehicles, offshore platforms, sensors for activity monitoring, and patrol boats.

-Vessel traffic management system (VTMS), communication networks, control centers, pollution monitoring centers, surface and navigation radars, and electro-optic systems.

-Unmanned Ariel Vehicles, patrol aircraft, helicopters, aerostats, and sensors.

-Observation and communication satellites.

Coming to the deterrence capability in the EEZ, it has to be a non-military option during peacetime, which brings the discussion to deployment of Non Lethal Weapons (NLW) and the need to develop them for the EEZ environment. Conflicts in the EEZ are definitely going to be unconventional and it would be difficult to distinguish the adversary from the neutrals or friendly vessels. This may lead to conflicts where use of lethal weapons may not be permissible. Non-lethal weapons would provide tactical as well as strategic benefits to the EEZ protection force in the global commons.NLW would enable options for de-escalation of conflicts, avoid irretrievable consequences of using lethal options, and result in deterring activity without loss of lives and damage to material. NLWs have to be cost effective and easy to operate, as different varieties in varying numbers would be required. However to ensure a calibrated approach, across the spectrum of conflict, there is also a need for NLWs to be doctrinally integrated with the regular naval forces to enable them to tackle a developing situation in the EEZ.

Various NLWs have been developed for use on the surface against vehicles and personnel, and are being used, even military combat vehicles like tanks are being outfitted with Anti Denial Systems, which project electromagnetic radiation to incapacitate personnel. Nonlethal firearm ammunition is based on transfer of energy and is not designed to kill. Wax bullets, beanbag rounds, plastic bullets, and rubber bullets come under this category. Hand grenades which stun, release irritant chemicals or rubber shrapnel are also in use. Directed energy weapons are used not only in anti missile defence but also in disabling drones, electronic devices, and cars. The directed energy weapons utilize various energy forms like electromagnetic radiation, acoustic waves, or particle beams (micro projectile weapons).

Whereas there are various options for use of NLWs on the surface, not much has been reported as far as under water NLWs are concerned. It may be desirable therefore to task the development agencies in the civilian domain to develop them since NLWs may not strictly come under the purview of the DRDO. NLWs designs based on acoustic pulses, ultrasonics, water shots, and very low explosive content weapons can be thought of.

In case of India, an ambitious plan for coastal security and maritime domain awareness has been put in place, however it appears that it needs  to be further strengthened and stitched together so that the EEZ security functions as a comprehensive entity with synergies across the various agencies involved.

In conclusion, it has been brought out that India’s EEZ has the potential to deliver a rich haul of precious minerals once relevant technologies are harnessed. However, it is also true that, in addition to existing threats of disruption of energy supplies, piracy and acts of terrorism, other nations are keen to poach in to the fisheries and seabed wealth. The security of the EEZ is therefore a matter of India’s national interest and need exists for boosting the EEZ’s monitoring, augmenting its security arrangements and developing cost effective comprehensive surveillance and non lethal weapon systems to tackle situations developing in the EEZ which may not warrant military intervention.


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