The Indian Naval Ship Teg is in the northern reaches of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) these days. It accosted our Quay A for a few days. Its presence in our vast oceanic waters is a part of a joint venture between the Governments of India and Mauritius especially aimed at preventing piracy and illegal fishing, as well as helping to reinforce maritime security.
It would be recalled that during the recent visit of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Mauritius as Chief Guest of the Government on the occasion of our 47th Independence Day Celebrations on 12th March, the protection of the shared waters of the Indian Ocean was one of the main planks of bilateral agreements signed between the two States. The INS Teg’s visit has triggered certain questions in my mind pertaining to our poor knowledge of our vast potentiality of being an Ocean State.
Ocean State Par Excellence
Mauritius is an Ocean State par excellence. We Mauritians are so engrossed in our own petty little ‘nombrilist’ entanglements and other futile quagmires that we fail to take cognizance of the vastness of our State. That we are an island country with our own psyche and beliefs and day to day mundane activities is also true. However, we are fortunate that we are linked these days to the global world through air, sea and above all E-technology. Yet, despite that we cannot think beyond our horizons and grasp the fact that we are such a rich and enormous Ocean State. And that the wealth of the sea, the immense potentialities of the Indian Ocean are waiting to be tapped by us, let alone being illegally ulitilised by others who wade stealthily in our waters!
The Indian Ocean is a mighty sea belt. It is the world’s third largest ocean. It carries half of the world’s container ships, one third of the bulk cargo traffic, and two-thirds of world’s shipments. Our Ocean is the lifeline of international trade and economy.
The Indian Ocean Rim Association was established after a consultative meeting in March 1995 by the Government of Mauritius to further enhancement of economic cooperation among countries of the Indian Ocean Rim. We also have the ‘Commission de l’Ocean Indien’ which focuses on cooperation and cultural exchanges between the Indian Ocean Islands.
In March 2012 Mauritius signed a historical agreement with Seychelles for the joint management of an additional 396,000 square kilometres of maritime zone over the Mascarenas plateau of the Indian Ocean. As a consequence of this landmark agreement, Mauritius instead of enjoying only its own small area of less than 2000 square kms, possesses an incredible 2.3 million square kilometres of maritime zone. Astonishingly, this area of our Ocean State is larger than the combined land territories of Spain, France, Germany, Italy and the UK put together! We hardly take this bonus into account, disregarding the vast economic possibilities that lie at our feet.
Do we have a career guidance policy? I am sure the University of Mauritius, the University of Technology and other tertiary sectors are seriously paying heed to our oceanic or blue economy and bracing our manpower to be skilled in disciplines pertaining to it. If the Government does have a policy to develop the blue economy, are the parents and their children made aware of this opportunity in our economic life?
Prospects in Marine Resources
Though prospects for using our marine resources for our economic development were signalled as early as the 1970s, we have not really geared our educational system to prepare our manpower in this direction, thus wasting so many decades. The current government has ambitious plans to take Mauritius on board the blue economy. But unless we make the necessary changes in the mindsets of our youth – who are so used to ‘comfort zones’ careers and do not venture to take risks – how can we really be ready to harness the sea for the 25 years to come? I believe that the prestigious IIT Delhi, which is recognised by the distinguished Harvard University, is still struggling since over a year to have its project of an IIT Research Academy take off in Mauritius. What are the obstacles? When are we going to change our insular lethargic approach? It is commendable that the Chair for Indian Ocean Rim Studies has been set up at the University of Mauritius. If we do not prepare our youth to the attractive prospects of the enormous employment opportunities in the sea economy such as seaweed exploitation for various sectors, be it beauty products, food products, fertilizers, chocolate and other food processing or pharmaceutical extracts, then we should have nobody to blame but ourselves.
The desalinisation of seawater is yet another big and valuable project. We moan year in year out about fresh water problems when our reservoirs dry up in the severe droughts, yet how far have we geared our young people to look towards the sea to exploit its waters for conversion to fresh waters? What about our human resources then? Are they only good as subalterns? Indeed, it is true that we are too small a population to have enough qualified human resource for such a vast operation as maintaining and utilising our enormous EEZ. India, which shares the Indian Ocean with us, is one such huge country with great skilled human resources that can help us in this field with its ancient marine history beginning from 3rd millennium BC.
Various other possibilities such as thalassotherapy can be explored. There are vast resources of minerals and oil in the beds of the Ocean. So many foreign fishing fleets exploit the Indian Ocean mainly for shrimp and tuna.
Seaborne Piracy Threats
Seaborne piracy against cargo ships is a growing menace. Recently we had 12 Somali pirates who were on trial in Mauritius. Though they were acquitted due to insufficient evidence, yet they are not released to go as yet. Piracy is a real issue especially in the Indian Ocean. We should be able to prepare our younger generations in such studies as International Sea Law and other high technical studies dealing with the sea. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the attacks by pirates as well as their taking hostages with violence, has gone on increasing from 2006 onwards. These are serious menaces, with more potential threats from terrorism largely through air or sea. We should therefore be ready to face the future with more serious preparedness.
Being an Ocean State, we should prepare ourselves to train our children from their young age in the multiple disciplines of oceanography to further their knowledge, and familiarise them with our maritime environment which we take for granted. It is sad that geography has disappeared as a subject at school. Students could take up biological, chemical or physical oceanography, or oceanographic engineering studies on operation of sensors. They should venture into underwater technology and other branches, to applied interdisciplinary knowledge, skills and abilities especially now that we are planning to expand our harbour and port facilities.
These days we also had the visit of HMAS Anzac from Sydney, Australia which has surprisingly a large woman crew ‘manning’ the ship. This could incite our girls to take more interest in the sea and its multifarious possibilities of worthwhile career ventures, other than those so far offered to them.
- Published in print edition on 24 July 2015