In Retrospect

Blue or indigo?

As the world races towards harnessing the deep-sea economy, and India’s G20 presidency is considered a significant bet in this regard, there is a need to usher in an element of sustainability in the concept of Blue Economy

Blue or indigo?

Blue Economy has become a new buzzword among the policy analysts of India. During the past few years, the term “Blue Economy” or “Blue Growth” has surged into common policy usage, all over the world. For some, the Blue Economy means the use of the sea and its resources for sustainable economic development. For others, it simply refers to any economic activity in the maritime sector, whether sustainable or not.

It is argued that given the global importance of the Blue Economy, India’s G20 Presidency brings about the unique opportunity to prioritise the Blue Economy for the purpose of growth, Green Economy, and social equity. India’s taking over the G20 presidency from Indonesia makes India the middle of the triad (Indonesia, India, and Brazil) from the global south to preside over the G20. It is up to the Indian presidency therefore to highlight the significance of the Blue Economy from the global south perspective, reports India Today.

As part of the country’s G20 Presidency in 2022, Indonesia launched a new agenda – Ocean 20 (O20). Supported by the World Economic Forum, O20 aims to deliver actionable policy recommendations and strategies for cooperation to spur investment and growth in the ocean economy – or Blue Economy – while protecting, restoring and regenerating it, claims the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). O20 provides a platform for the world’s leading global companies, G20 countries and civil society voices to make and realise commitments towards a sustainable, inclusive ocean – and to leverage market opportunities in the ocean economy.

Global policymakers observed that although the G20 has vowed to rebuild the global economy in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and to fight climate change by investing in sustainable development, one of the most powerful tools available to achieve these goals is largely missing from national economic recovery plans — ocean-based climate solutions. Thus, the concept of the Blue Economy has been planned to supplement the ‘Green Economy’ which has already been established as a suitable tool to combat climate change.


The “Rio+20” United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), held in Rio de Janeiro, June 20-22 in 2012, focused on two key themes to further the development and refinement of the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development and the advancement of the “Green Economy” concept. The meeting, in its outcome document, reaffirmed poverty eradication as its key challenge. The Green Economy concept is structured to reflect this. It is reported that throughout the preparatory process for Rio +20, many coastal countries questioned the focus of the Green Economy and its applicability to them. Strong positions were presented to the Rio+20 preparatory process for a “Blue Economy” approach. Coastal and Island developing countries have remained at the forefront of this Blue Economy advocacy, recognising that the oceans have a major role to play in humanity’s future, and that the Blue Economy offers an approach to sustainable development better suited to their circumstances, constraints, and challenges.

Thus, it is perceived that the Blue Economy is a developing-world initiative pioneered by Small Island Developing States (SIDS), but is relevant to all coastal states and countries with an interest in waters beyond national jurisdiction. The Blue Economy conceptualises oceans as “Development Spaces” where spatial planning integrates conservation, sustainable use, oil and mineral wealth extraction, bio-prospecting, sustainable energy production, and marine transport. The Blue Economy espouses the same desired outcome as the Rio +20 Green Economy initiative, namely: “improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”, and it endorses the same principles of low carbon, resource efficiency and social inclusion.

The Heads of State and Government and High Representatives, who met at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from September 25-27, 2015, as the Organisation celebrated its 70th anniversary, decided on new global Sustainable Development Goals. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations’ member states, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries — developed and developing — in a global partnership. SDG 14, which deals with ‘life below water’, is about conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources. They cover 70 percent of the planet and provide food, energy and water. The ocean absorbs around one-quarter of the world’s annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, thereby mitigating climate change and alleviating its impacts.

UNDP has reported that SDG 14, which remains the most underfunded SDG, holds immense potential to be a gamechanger in addressing the planetary crisis. Its Blue Economy vision emphasises the restoration of the nearly USD 1 trillion in annual socio economic losses due to ocean mismanagement, as well as tapping the new and emerging ocean sectors, from marine genetic resources to ocean-based energy — that are realistic, pragmatic and sustainable for increased socio-economic opportunities.

In 2018, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles — the foundational keystone to investing in the ocean economy. That is the world’s first global guiding framework for banks, insurers and investors to finance a sustainable Blue Economy. They promote the implementation of SDG 14, and set out ocean-specific standards, allowing the financial industry to mainstream the sustainability of ocean-based sectors. The principles were developed by the European Commission, WWF, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the European Investment Bank (EIB), and are hosted by UNEP Finance Initiative as part of the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Initiative.

Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI), in its book (2022) titled ‘Blue Economy and Blue Finance: Toward Sustainable Development and Ocean Governance’, offers evidence-based approaches for promoting sustainable ocean and coastal development and management in Asia and the Pacific where billions of people depend on healthy oceans for their livelihoods, food security, health, and recreation. However, the impacts of climate change; marine pollution, overfishing, and unsustainable coastal development are increasingly threatening these ecosystems, jeopardising the region’s small island nations and other developing coastal economies, claims the publication.

Different contours

The “Blue Economy” comprises the economic activities that create sustainable wealth from the world’s oceans and coasts. It has been observed that while the world’s attention has been caught by the direct terrestrial implications of the green agenda, the Blue Economy hasn’t been prioritised to date, though it is central to the green ecosystem. Oceans influence all natural cycles and are also directly or indirectly involved with all economic sectors. Oceans produce up to 70 per cent of the oxygen we breathe, while nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population depends on marine and coastal biodiversity for livelihood. For these reasons, the “blue” component of the “green” transition to a more sustainable global economy shouldn’t be overlooked.

OECD, which primarily sets the agenda for G20, claims that in addition to its crucial role in regulating the climate and weather and providing critical ecosystem services, the ocean is vital to the world’s economy, with more than 90 per cent of trade carried out through sea routes and millions of people relying on oceans for jobs. The ocean is also the stage for a growing range of new ocean-related economic activities and constant innovations.

The OECD has defined ‘ocean economy’ as the sum of the economic activities of ocean-based industries, together with the assets, goods and services provided by marine ecosystems. These two pillars are interdependent, as much activity associated with the ocean-based industry is derived from marine ecosystems, while industrial activity often impacts marine ecosystems. The interdependency of ocean-based industries and marine ecosystems, combined with increasingly severe threats to the health of the ocean, has led to a growing recognition of the

need for an integrated approach to ocean management.

One important issue that regulates the Blue Economy is the demarcation of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), as defined under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is an area of the ocean extending up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) immediately offshore from a country’s land coast in which that country retains exclusive right to the exploration and exploitation of natural resources. Then who regulates the sea beyond EEZs of sovereign nations?

The deep ocean below 200 meters is the largest habitat for life on Earth and the most difficult to access. The sea floor, just like the terrestrial environment, is made up of mountain ranges, plateaus, volcanic peaks, canyons, and vast abyssal plains. It contains most of the same minerals that we find on land, often in enriched forms, as well as minerals that are unique to the deep ocean, such as ferromanganese crusts and polymetallic nodules.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a Kingston, Jamaica-based intergovernmental body of 167 member states and the European Union, established under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its 1994 Agreement on Implementation, has the dual mission to authorise and control the development of mineral-related operations in the international seabed considered the “common heritage of all mankind” and to protect the ecosystem of the seabed, ocean floor, and subsoil in “The Area” beyond national jurisdiction.

All the members of UNCLOS are members of the ISA. As the US has not ratified UNCLOS because of opposition from Republicans in the Senate, where treaties must be approved by a two-thirds vote, the USA is not a member of ISA. This has pushed the USA to the back seat in the high-potential deep-sea mining where China and Japan are the global leaders. Companies in the US are reluctant to invest heavily in deep seabed mining because of the risk that their activities would not withstand a legal challenge since the US is not a party to the convention. This has prompted the USA to explore an alternative forum like G20 to influence ISA policy decisions.

India’s Blue Economy policy

In June 2021, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, approved the proposal of the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) on the ‘Deep Ocean Mission’, with a view to exploring the deep ocean for resources and developing deep-sea technologies for sustainable use of ocean resources. The estimated cost of the mission will be Rs 4,077 crore for a period of five years, to be implemented in a phase-wise manner. The assessed cost for the first phase in the three years (2021-2024) would be Rs 2,823.4 crore. The Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) will be the nodal Ministry implementing this multi-institutional ambitious mission. The Deep Ocean Mission consists of the following six major components:

* Development of technologies for deep-sea mining, and manned submersible;

* Development of ocean climate change advisory services;

* Technological innovations for exploration and conservation of deep-sea biodiversity;

* Deep-ocean survey and exploration;

* Energy and freshwater from the ocean;

* Advanced marine station for ocean biology

In July 2022, the Ministry of Earth Sciences, Government of India, posted on their website a press release, titled ‘Blue Economic Policy’. The draft ‘Blue Economy Policy’ framework envisages the optimal utilisation of all sectors of the maritime domain (living, non-living resources, tourism, ocean energy, etc.) for sustainable development of coastal areas. The policy document contains key recommendations on a national accounting framework for the blue economy and ocean governance; coastal marine spatial planning and tourism priority; marine fisheries, aquaculture, and fish processing; manufacturing, emerging industries, trade, technology, services, and skill development; logistics, infrastructure, and shipping; coastal and deep-sea mining and offshore energy; and security, strategic dimensions, and international engagement.

India’s Indigo Economy

Interestingly, to the common man of India, thanks to the mythological story of the ‘churning of the ocean’ and Lord Shiva swallowing the deadly poison, which came out of the ocean, to save mankind, blue has a slightly different connotation. The mythology of Samudra Manthan or churning of the ocean goes like this: To get the elixir or nectar from the bottom of the ocean, once the Gods and the demons came together to churn the ocean. While the churning was in the process many things emerged out of the ocean. Precious gems, animals, gold, silver, Goddess Lakshmi, Dhanvantri, etc. were some of the things which were divided among the Gods and the demons.

Among the many things which came out of the ocean, a deadly poison named Halahal was also one. This poison was extremely deadly and, soon, all the beings that came in contact with it began to perish. Even the Gods and the demons were asphyxiated and were on the verge of dying. Only Lord Shiva had the power to control and digest the poison which was so deadly. Since He had the power, Lord Shiva took the responsibility to drink the deadly poison. Soon, the deadly poison started affecting Lord Shiva and His body started turning blue. Alarmed by the fast spreading of the poison, Goddess Parvati entered Lord Shiva’s throat in the form of a Mahavidya and controlled the poison to His throat. Thus, Lord Shiva became blue-throated and came to be known as Neelkanth.

It is believed that the blue colour of the poison signifies the negative thoughts and vices in our lives. The poison contained in the throat of Lord Shiva signifies that the poison can neither be drunk nor spitted out. But it can be controlled and made ineffective over time.

Referring to this allegory, D Dey (2010) coined a concept called “Indigo Economy” to explain the real condition of the developing south due to large-scale transfer of inappropriate technology and industrial wastes to the developing countries by the developed North to make their ‘economy green’. In his paper titled ‘Of Global Warming and Indigo Economy’, the author argues that the climate change issue is dividing the globe into two broad categories — namely ‘green’ and ‘indigo’ economies.

The ‘indigo economy’ represents economic activities that primarily use dirty and polluting production processes. This also represents an economic activity that is mostly meant for global markets and is detrimental, as was the case of indigo plantations of the 18th century, to the large section of the local population. The developed economies are becoming ‘green’ at the expense of the developing economies which are turning ‘indigo’ (nilkantha) by absorbing increasing amounts of ‘Franken foods’ and industrial pollutants, including nuclear radiation.


The prospect of a race to the bottom of the ocean has alarmed a section of scientists and concerned citizens. Just like the terrestrial environment, oceans are facing conflicts between development and the environment — overfishing, industrial waste, and plastic debris are just a few of the factors ailing them. What adds to the danger is the utter lack of knowledge of the deep-sea environment.

While pondering on the blue and green economies, the leaders of the developing south should deliberate on the ‘indigo economy’ in the G20 Summit. Leaders should remember: long ago, Indian mythology warned the world that the churning of the ocean also brings out ‘Halahal’ (poison), along with elixir and treasure.

Views expressed are personal

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