The Oceans Conference 2017

Dear friends, at the outset let me welcome you all to the green and scenic state of Kerala. I thank the Ambassador of Netherlands, Honourable Alphonsus Stoelinga, for extending this invitation to me to deliver the keynote address at the Oceans Conference 2017. I am humbled by your kind gesture.

May I also take this opportunity to thank The Kingdom of Netherlands and the Observer Research Foundation for bringing the deliberations on ‘Towards A Common Prosperity Framework’ to ‘God’s Own Country’. Kerala has time and again made it clear that our doors are open to all those who want to come here and conduct meaningful discussions and deliberations. We, the people of Kerala are gearing towards playing a significant role in the knowledge production that is driving growth and ensuring accessibility across the world. Particularly when we see that the space for free and fair expression is diminishing around us, we are opening our arms to the world, inviting you all to come and experience the liberty in vogue here and to relish the beauty of our glorious backwaters and mesmerising hills.

There is a long history of exchange between Kerala and the Netherlands. From the mid 17th to the late 18th century, the Dutch virtually ruled Malabar, with great command particularly in the Kingdom of Cochin, which is part of the present state of Kerala. The fact that they had a significant influence in the pepper trade and had control over ports like Ponnani and Alappuzha cannot be overlooked. Kerala also encompasses parts of the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore, which owes much of its military advancement and territorial expansion, to the Dutch Commander Captain De Lannoy, who is popularly referred to as Valiya Kappithan in these parts of the world. It is not far from this very city of Thiruvananthapuram that we are in today, that the Battle of Colachal was fought in 1741.

The Dutch contributed a comprehensive treatise on the medicinal plants of Malabar, the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus. In fact later on, when printing technology reached the shores of Kerala, it was the Hortus Malabaricus which was published in Amsterdam, that was printed using Malayalam font, for the very first time in history. Even today, these technological exchanges continue, which is evident in the fact that we are using Dutch experts and technology, in devising a master plan to clean up the world famous canals in Alappuzha, the Venice of the East. I mentioned all this only to remind this august gathering of how long back the ties between Kerala and the Netherlands go, and how it continues to be a thriving relationship.

It is also important to recall that the ocean has played the single largest role in making Kerala what it is today. The crown jewel of Kerala’s history, the legendary seaport of Muziris, which was the ancient world’s greatest trading centre in the East, used to trade in everything from spices to precious stones with the Greeks, Romans and the rest of the world. Once the doorway to India for varied cultures and races including the Arabs, Chinese, Jews, Romans, Portuguese, Dutch and the British, Muziris has stood witness to civilisations being born, wars being waged and history being written. It is the influence of all these cultures, that came into contact with us through the ocean, that has come to define and develop Kerala’s heritage, culture, agriculture and economy.

The oceans have always been an integral component of the earth’s ecosystem, as a prominent source of food and a natural means of waste management, ensuring sustainability of our earth. However, we live in times in which there are serious threats to the sustainability of the ocean itself. Unsustainable human activities have resulted in the ocean becoming a garbage patch. Far too often we come across stories of birds and animals including big fishes, being killed by the consumption of plastic in the ocean. The detrimental effects of oil spills on oceanic life has also been shared too many times. Yet, the reality is that, neither spills nor waste dumping has seized. Hence, at the risk of sounding alarming, let me say that, the time has come for us to take firm measures against such life threatening human pursuits.

Oceans play a critical role in both short and long term weather and climatic patterns. Nearly 90 percent of extra heat generated due to emission of greenhouse gases from the landmass is absorbed by oceans, warming them up. Indian Ocean, considered one of the most productive seas, has seen warming greater than other oceans. The warming in Indian Ocean during the past century has been estimated up to 1.2 degree Celcius, which is very large compared to a global surface warming of up to 0.8 degree Celcius during the same period. The warming of Indian Ocean is affecting the productivity of its marine eco system. Simply put, the food web necessary for fish production in the seas is getting affected due to global warming. This in turn, is resulting in dwindling fish catch rates in the Indian Ocean. In fact, even the shores of Kerala, which has historically been robust with seafood, has seen a sharp decline in the rate of fish catch over the last few years. Available data from the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission shows that the tuna catch rates in the Indian Ocean have declined by 50 to 90 percent during the past five decades. Much of this decline has to do with increased industrial fisheries, but reduced availability of phytoplankton due to warming of the ocean, is also a major reason.

As mentioned, rapid changes in our climate have been adversely affecting the health of our oceans. The situation becomes all the more grim as climate change also affects our land, particularly its water resources. We need to devise less capital intensive means of ensuring drinking water by desalinating ocean water. Exploring its possibility in irrigation should not be overlooked either. With the amazing solutions that technology is offering to us these days, particularly in making our lives easier, I doubt if such innovative solutions are impossible. Surely, the scarcity of water we experience now is only going to intensify in the days to come and as Governments and policy formulators, we need to be able to prepare people friendly measures to tide over such serious challenges.

While I mentioned a steadily deteriorating maritime environment, I probably risked sounding like a doomsday prophet. I was only expressing concern at how the ocean that sustains us needs to be better taken care of. At the same time, I am fully seized of the opportunities that the vast oceans that we are surrounded with, makes available to us, in terms of fisheries, trade, tourism and generation of livelihoods. As we proceed to make sure that such opportunities are utilised to the maximum, we should also make sure that the UN mandated Sustainable Development Goals are adhered to. Though we have seen that in some instances conservation and livelihoods needs come in to conflict, we ought to remind ourselves that as long as local livelihoods had remained local and when big businesses had not penetrated into it significantly, conservation was ensured side by side, as that was how life and livelihoods were sustained.

Kerala is naturally gifted with a long coastline and hence has an enviable opportunity vis a vis tourism. It also has many small fishing ports and a few larger ones. Therefore, our concerns when it comes to the ocean, are primarily related to livelihood, tourism and trade. The fact that we seriously care for the safety of our people who go into the seas for their livelihood, goes without saying. While the state of Kerala is well on the way to make more of our beaches tourism friendly, we are also looking at avenues for developing ocean tourism, in which our smaller ports can play a leading role. Our small ports like Ponnani can also pave the way for better trade and transportation with other similar small ports. At the same time, we also need to ensure that our larger ports like Cochin continue to play a significant role in international trade. Our upcoming port at Vizhinjam needs to be firmly placed in the oceanic trading grid as well. We need to produce cost effective communication and location devices which will ensure the safety and security of our fishermen. Coordinated and efficient disaster management systems are also much needed these days. I hope that there will be meaningful discussions on all these aspects as well in this conference.

I understand that this conference will evaluate deficiencies in the current international system on Ocean Governance. May I take this opportunity to make an observation. As in all realms of governance, the focus of ocean governance should also be people centric. While international bodies continue to control and manage resources, one should not forget that for ensuring sustainability, like any other governance, ocean governance should also be participatory. Without participation, no model of governance has been truly sustainable.

Once again, I welcome you all to this historic state of Kerala. I hope that you will be able to have a first hand account of our popular culture, mouth watering cuisine, robust economy and scenic beauty. I wish the Oceans Conference 2017 all the very best and hope that you will have fruitful deliberations over the next couple of days.

As we discuss issues of sustainability, conservation, economic development, maritime industry as well as the emerging Blue Economy concept, we should remind ourselves that man and nature ought to be at the centre, while moving ‘Towards A Common Prosperity Framework’. Thank you.