Antarctica and India
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Operation Gangotri/ 1981
Celebrated on December 1 each year, Antarctica Day marks the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. But it wasn’t until 1981 that India decided to send its first scientific expedition to the icy continent. Marine biologist Dr S Z Qasim headed the 21-member team, which travelled on a chartered Norwegian vessel called the Polar Circle.
The historic expedition, code-named Operation Gangotri, was kept under wraps from the public, since the outcome was uncertain.
“The operation was very secretive… A boat was chartered from Norway, but there were back channel talks with the country not to tell. There was a lot of diplomacy involved,” Dr Rahul Mohan, project director, National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) in Goa.
On January 9, 1982, the group set foot on Antarctica and hoisted the Indian flag.
Speaking at NCPOR in Goa on Friday, Dr Amitava Sengupta, member of the first expedition, said, “It was one of those top secret operations, organised in record time. The entire operation, starting from conception to us finally sailing off from Goa on December 6, was accomplished in just over four months. We all (scientists) were in our late 20s and… our initial meetings were behind closed doors. People like… the cabinet secretary, defence secretary and the chief of naval staff… they were addressing us and we were discussing strategy… and we were not allowed to tell any of this outside. We couldn’t tell our wives. We felt like we were in a James Bond movie. It was very exciting.”
“I had till then never seen a ship, let alone being on one. I had never seen snow. We had to be acclimatised for the sea… So, we were packed off to Srinagar, Gulmarg… and then sent on one of the Indian Navy frigates… and taken around the Bay of Bengal for seven days and so on… There were six-seven of us scientists who had to be trained, and because this was top secret, the trainers were not allowed to know what we were going to be trained for… So, he (the ship’s captain) gave us all kinds of training like shooting a pistol… they thought we were being trained for some secret offensive operation,” said Sengupta. “Ten days after we set sail, the news broke in a magazine.”
“When we came back from Antarctica, it was as if we had come back from the moon or something,” he said. “Someone told me, ‘you must know swimming’. I said I am from Delhi, I don’t know swimming and it wouldn’t matter anyway – if one goes into that water, one would die of a heart attack.”
Another member recalled: “You see, the biggest problem in Antarctica is water. There is so much of it, but it’s the wrong form – it’s solid… One person’s duty was to melt water. We ate dehydrated food that we had carried with us.”
M C Pathak, a member of the first expedition, said, “When we landed, we put up our tents… At midnight, when we were asleep, I saw the satellite position. We were drifting out… We contacted the ship and we were rescued by a helicopter.”
Members of the third Indian scientific expedition to Antarctica were also felicitated at the event, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of commissioning of Dakshin Gangotri – India’s first research station in Antarctica. The expedition was launched in 1983 with 83 members under the leadership of Dr Harsh K Gupta.
One of the members of the expedition said they were given only a few minutes to talk to family members on a satellite phone. “On one occasion, one of the crew members had given the number of his village post office, since there was no phone at his house. The operator, instead of connecting him with his family, would enquire about the officer’s matrimonial details to set up a match,” said Lt Gen Abhay Parnaik, who was part of the third expedition.
Recalling a telephonic conversation with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, after a helicopter crash occurred during the expedition leaving five people injured, Dr Gupta said, “I picked up the phone… first question (by the PM) was, ‘Harsh, what happened?’ Second question, ‘Are those five people safe’?”
After he explained the circumstances, he said, “Then she (Gandhi) asked me, ‘Can you still do it?’ I replied, ‘If I don’t do it, I don’t come back’. There was a long pause after that. And then I heard, ‘Go ahead and do it’.”
Dr Gupta said, “When I look back, I realise why that pause was there. She is the Prime Minister of the country. She is asking a young man to accomplish a task under a very adverse situation… So in case, something goes wrong with the expedition, everyone will question her.”
Twenty-five years after it established Dakshin Gangotri, the first permanent research station in the South Polar region, India is all set to build the third such centre in Antarctica at a cost of Rs 230 crore to take up cutting-edge research in various fields. The station, named Bharti became operational by 2012, making India a member of an elite group of nine nations that have multiple stations in the region.
Dakshin Gangotri, set up in 1984, was buried in ice and had to be abandoned in 1990, a year after India set up Maitri, the second station. The National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR), Goa, will set up the new station on Larsmann Hill, 3,000 km from Schirmacher Oasis, where Maitri stands. While Maitri was more than 100 km from the Antarctic Sea, Bharti will be on a promontory by the sea. "This will enable us to take up rare research on the marine ecology of the polar region. Antarctica is a continent spread across 13 million sqkm and we thought we shouldn't confine ourselves to just one area," NCAOR director Rasik Ravindran told.
Bharti, like Maitri, also conducts research on seismic activity, climate change and medicine. The station is a compact structure of 30x50 metres, accommodating 25 scientists. While living in Antarctica, where temperatures range from -89 degrees Celsius in winter to -25 degrees Celsius in summer, can be tough, constructing a permanent structure is a huge challenge. "With wind speeds crossing 40 knots, manoeuvring ships to Antartica is a challenging job. We're also considering transportation of materials on ice that could be more than 1.5 metres thick, from the ship's mooring point to the construction site, using special vehicles," said Rajasekhar, head of vessel management, National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), Chennai, which handles the logistics.
Dakshin Gangotri: India’s first scientific base
Gangotri at the South Pole
In 1983, India's first scientific base station in Antarctica was established, about 2,500 kilometres from the South Pole. Named Dakshin Gangotri, it was constructed during the third Indian expedition to Antarctica. The station was built in record time-eight weeks-by an 81-member team, and was powered by solar energy. It was abandoned in 1988-89, after it was submerged in ice. Before it was shut down, the base hosted an automatic weather recording station, and was also used to perform scientific tests on radio transmission. It also served as a hub for experiments in physical oceanography, chemical analyses of freshwater lakes in the area, as well as geology, glaciology and geomagnetism. After the base was rendered inoperable, a new research station, Maitri-which also served as India's first permanent station at the South Pole-was constructed about 90 km away, in 1988. It serves as a base for front-ranking research and developments in basic and environmental sciences.
It’s 40 years since India became permanent resident of Antarctica
The Tricolour was unfurled in Antarctica in January 1982 but India did not have a permanent base there till its third expedition arrived in December 1983 and set up buildings where scientists could live year-round
December 1983 was a landmark month because it gave India its first people’s car, the Maruti 800. But something else of great significance was afoot then. On December 3, the Finnpolaris, a chartered iceclass vessel, had sailed out of Mormugao, Goa, with an 81-member team on board. Their mission was to set up Dakshin Gangotri, India’s first permanent base in Antarctica.
It wasn’t India’s first mission to the White Continent. A 21-member team had sailed on December 6, 1981 and stayed a fortnight after arriving on January 9, 1982. Another team had arrived on December 28, 1982 and spent two months “focused on geological experiments to assess the continent’s mineral and oil potential,” TOI had reported then.
Why December every time? Because that’s when Antarctica, like Sydney, Rio, Johannesburg and other places in the southern hemisphere, has its summer. There’s a brief window of two months to get work done before the continent freezes up again.
The 1980s was a time when every major country was racing to explore and claim the mineral and marine wealth of Antarctica, so India could not have remained a seasonal visitor. “India realised that a permanent base was an absolute necessity for round-the-year observations in the icy continent,” says Harsh Gupta, who led the 1983-84 expedition that went on to establish Dakshin Gangotri.
The 1983 mission was called Project Gangotri. Finnpolaris reached Antarctica on December 26, and the team went to work. Their goal was to set up the permanent base in 60 days. “No country has built a permanent station in Antarctica in one Antarctic summer, and wintered there. This was a record India created in 1983-84 and it is still unbroken,” says Gupta.
But the project nearly got derailed by an accident on the third day. “On December 29, a load was hooked to a helicopter,” recalls Gupta. “The helicopter did not rise adequately. The under-slung load became entangled with the railing of the ship and the rotors Antarc of the helicopter hit the ship’s crane.”
The chopper with five crew members on board started drifting and sinking in the icy waters. “A Chetak helicopter was launched to rescue them,” says Gupta, but the first two men it scooped up could not hold on to the harness as their arms had become numb. They tumbled into the water again and a boat had to be rushed to rescue all five.
Professor Sudipta Sengupta, a core geologist, and oceanographer Aditi Pant were the only women on the mission. “For a few minutes we were horrified by the prospect of the team members dying. To our great relief, they were alright,” says Sengupta.
With one of their four helicopters lost,and five men fighting hypothermia, the mission was in jeopardy. Gupta remembers the tension in the air when they briefed the Prime Minister’s office from the bridge of the ship. Soon, they received a call from PM Indira Gandhi, whose first question was about the wellbeing of the survivors. Then she asked, “Can you still do it?”
“If I don’t do it, I don’t come back,” Gupta says he replied without a thought. There was a pause, and then the PM said, “Go ahead and do it.” “From that moment, ‘We don’t go back if we don’t complete Dakshin Gangotri’ became our war cry,” says Gupta.
Although scientific exploration was the chief aim of the mission, the team had more defence personnel than scientists. As against 16 scientists, there were 29 Army personnel, and 12 each from the Air Force and the Navy. All had been trained on the Machoi Glacier in Jammu & Kashmir.
As TOI reported on December 28, 1983, the defence establishment had a big role in setting up the permanent base at Dakshin Gangotri. The prefabricated huts for the base were made by the Defence Research and Development Organisation. They were insulated and heated and could withstand wind speeds of up to 200kmph. “To give (the scientists) a touch of their familiar home atmosphere, there will be taped music, an enormous collection of books and video cassettes,” the TOI report said.
When the Finnpolaris left Goa, it was loaded with 900 tonnes of construction material and 1,000 oil barrels. To move crew and things around quickly, there were two Mi-8 medium twin-turbine helicopters and two Chetak light helicopters, besides two bulldozers and several snow scooters.
As the ship neared Antarctica, designations and ranks melted away. Officers, soldiers, and scientists worked as one to build the 620sq-m two-storey structure equipped with laboratories, living quarters for 12 wintering team members, a medical room, a communications room, a gymnasium and a recreation room. Although it was ‘summer’, some days were lost to whiteouts and blizzards. Yet, the 60-day deadline for building the permanent base was met.
Tricolour travelled like Bond first time
India’s first mission to Antarctica in December 1981 was conceived in secrecy, and the 21 crew members weren’t allowed to talk about it even with their families. Amitava Sengupta, one of the youngest members of that mission, recalls that the air of strict confidentiality before departure made them feel like they were in “a James Bond movie”. “The initial meetings were held behind closed doors and involved only top officials, including cabinet secretaries and the Indian Navy chief,” says Sengupta.
The team’s military trainers were also clueless about the mission, and they thought they were training a bunch of spies. “The real challenge was that the trainers did not know what we were preparing for. They thought we were part of a secret offensive mission, hence the weapons training,” says Sengupta.
All the team team members were young, with their average age around 30 years “so that they could be associated with the taxing Antarctic expeditions on a continuing basis for one or two decades and, if necessary, in setting up a permanent station on the continent,” TOI reported on January 12, 1982.
They were trained at the Army’s High Altitude Warfare School in Gulmarg, and then taken to Drass, “the second coldest inhabited place in the world, where the temperature falls to -56° C,” another TOI report on March 29, 1982 said, adding, “The training schedule included instruction in crossing of crevasses, prevention of frostbite and rescue operations.” Later, a Navy warship acclimatised the scientists to rough sea conditions, but even the vessel’s commander didn’t know what their goal was. Finally, the team embarked on the Norwegian ship Polarsirkel because India’s lone oceanographic research vessel Gaveshini was too small for the team and its equipment that included two choppers.
It also lacked icebreaking capabilities. “There were a lot of backchannel talks with Norway to request it not to tell other nations of our plans,” says Rahul Mohan, project director of the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) at Vasco. Ten days after leaving Goa, the Polarsirkel picked up equipment and supplies in Mauritius. Team leader and marine biologist Syed Zahoor Qasim also boarded the ship there. He had the honour of unfurling the Tricolour for the first time in Antarctica, marking the start of the Southern Ocean expeditions under the environmental protocol of the Antarctic Treaty (1959). The first expedition spent only two weeks on the continent. “When we returned, it was almost like coming back from the moon,” says Sengupta.
Post office in Panaji
Panaji post office is gateway to polar base
Freezing Antarctica and sunny Goa could not be more different, but they are united by a pin code. All letters to Maitri, India’s current base in Antarctica, are addressed to the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research at Vasco, Goa’s port town, with the pin code 403001, which refers to the head post office in state capital Panaji. NCPOR then hands them over to a researcher travelling to Maitri. A post office was started at the Dakshin Gangotri base on February 24, 1984, and it received over 10,000 letters within the first year. The sub-zero post office was formally brought under Goa’s department of posts on January 26, 1988. “We used to carry loads of letters from India and I cancelled them in Antarctica with a special stamp,” professor Sudipta Sengupta, who was part of Project Gangotri and the first postmaster at Dakshin Gangotri, told TOI from her home in Kolkata. A different expedition member was made honorary postmaster every year at the base until it was abandoned in 1988-89 after it was buried in ice. Since then, the new post office at Maitri has borne Panaji’s pin code.