Goal 14 of the SDGs v. Indian Naval Exercises

Photo by Francesco Ungaro from Pexels

By John J Vachaparambil

When we think about the sources of destruction, and damage to marine life, and the environment, we think about sources like oil spills, overfishing, illegal whaling, plastic, and unattended fishing nets, also called the ‘ghost nets’, etc. But recent studies have discovered yet another source that is causing massive destruction of the marine environment and the life below water.

With the increasing number of Indian naval exercises being conducted annually, the oceanic noise pollution levels have increased beyond belief, and the aftermath of such noise pollution is starting to become evident.


As per Section 2 (e) of the 1974 Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, the term ‘pollution’ also means and includes such contamination of water, that is likely to create a nuisance, that can become harmful, and injurious to the health of aquatic organisms.

Theory of Sound

As per this theory, sound travels faster in water compared to air. Also, the speed of sound underwater depends on the water temperature, salinity, and the depth.


The main issue regarding the Indian naval exercises is that there is no regulation, and the exercises are not backed by any international conventions, or under any domestic law. These exercises are conducted based on the bilateral, or multilateral agreements entered into by the participating nations to that particular exercise

This is in violation of the objective of the 2014 Act East Policy set into motion by the Honorable Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, during the East Asia Summit held in Myanmar. Among the various objectives of the Policy, is the objective ‘for closer cooperation in combating terrorism, collaborating for peace, and stability in the region, and promotion of maritime security based on international norms, and laws are being pursued’.


  1. The main reason why there is no regulation of the Indian naval exercises is that under Article 234, Section 10 of the UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) (India is a member by means of ratification dated June.29, 1995), the Convention states that ‘the provisions of this Convention regarding the protection, and preservation of the marine environment do not apply to any warship, naval auxiliary, other vessels, or aircraft owned, or operated by the State’.
  2. While providing for the protection of the marine environment under the 1976 Maritime Zones Act, under Section 4 (2), the Act grants permission for foreign warships, and submarines, or to any other underwater vehicle to enter, or to pass through the territorial waters of India, by giving prior notice to the Central Government.
  3. The only regulation provided under the 1976 Act is that the submarines and other underwater vehicles should navigate along the water surface, and display the nation’s flag.
  4. The Navy Act, 1957, nor does the 2005 amendment Act does not regulate naval exercises, and does not mention anything about such exercises.
  5. Even though the 1986 Environment Protection Act mention the protection of water, the 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, which is based on the 1986 EPA, does not mention impact assessments for naval exercises.

Goal 14 of the SDGs

It is believed that all the life forms on planet Earth came from the oceans. So, protection of the life below water is very important, especially for the survival of the human race. Humans depend a lot on the oceans, i.e., for food, and income. The aftermath of the unregulated naval exercises is becoming more evident these days.

Why Regulation

Goal 14 of the SDGs discuss the life below water. But without regulation, the oceanic noise pollution level keeps rising to an extent that the damage, and destruction caused would become irreparable. Restoration of the marine environment would be impossible. The oceanic noise pollution severely affects the cetaceans group of marine mammals, mainly dolphins, and whales. These marine mammals use sound, also called echolocation, or bi sonar to communicate, and to see underwater. With all the artificial noise in the water, communication becomes difficult, especially in the dark ocean depths. The masking of the sound made by whales, and dolphins by all the artificial noise, has resulted into devastating incidents around the world. The aftermaths of such masking has resulted into the phenomena of mass beaching, and standings.

Various studies point out to one particular source that has a much more, and a wider impact on the life below water, i.e., the SONAR (Sound Navigation and Ranging). Sonar is used by submarines to detect obstacles in the depths, and by warships to detect enemy submarines and underwater mines. The presence of so many naval inventories during these exercises, and the use of SONAR is resulting in various issues among the marine life. Submarines use two kinds of sonar, i.e., active, and passive.

In 2001, the US Navy acknowledged their fault in using active sonar in the marine environment that led to the mass beaching, and deaths of 14 beaked whales, two minke whales, and a dolphin in the Bahamas in 2000. The autopsies found that the marine life had suffered acoustic trauma resulting in brain haemorrhaging.

The incidents of marine life deaths along the Indian coastline is also increasing these days.

A marine biologist once quoted “”a whale calf separated from its mother in the oceans, is like a dead whale””.

With so many of the whale species listed as either ‘endangered’, or ‘critically endangered’ in the IUCN Red List, the Indian naval exercises needs to be regulated.

It is not just the cetaceans that are affected by sonar, but other marine life too. Studies have shown that the use of sonar affects the nature feed of dolphins and whales. It is also seen that the area where the sonar is used becomes devoid of any marine life after the exercises.

Way forward

  1. The Ministry of Defense shall regulate the Indian naval exercises with an amendment to the Navy Act,
  2. The Ministry of Environment and Forest shall mandate pre, and post marine impact assessments for naval exercises,
  3. The Navy shall implement the Under Water Noise Reduction Guidelines issued by IMO (International Maritime Organization),
  4. Avoid conducting naval exercises in the vicinity of marine life sensitive areas, protected marine parks, or in the migratory routes of marine life, especially whales, and dolphins,
  5. Conduct surveys to detect the presence of marine life in the exercise zone,
  6. Regulate the number of naval inventories used, and
  7. Regulate the number of exercises conducted annually.


India played a very important role in the formulation of the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Agenda, and the nation’s national development goals are reflected in the SDGs themselves. The world is looking at India’s progress to achieve the SDGs. But without regulating the naval exercises, how can India protect life underwater. Naval exercises should not only be to provide an effective maritime security strategy but should in itself be marine friendly. Defence is a subject under the Union List in the Indian Constitution, the Union shall take measures to protect the marine environment, and the life below the water, mandated under Article 48A (Directive Principles of State Policy) of the Constitution.

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