India: Pollution In Oceans

Last Updated: 5 February 2018
Article by S.S. Rana & Co. Advocates


Oceans, the largest water bodies on Earth, have been subject to a lot of pollution over the last few decades. Pollution caused due to surplus human activities have severely affected the marine life of the oceans. Ocean pollution or marine pollution is the spreading of various harmful substances such as oil, plastic, industrial, agricultural waste, chemical particles etc. in the ocean. Oceans constitute the major water bodies on earth and also provide home to wide variety of marine animals and plants, therefore, it is important to keep oceans clean so that marine species can thrive for long period of time.

The United Nations has been at the forefront to ensure the implementation of an effective regime to control and reduce marine pollution. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (hereinafter referred to as "UNCLOS" or "Convention"), also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world's oceans and seas establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources. UNCLOS is based on the principle that the problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be addressed as a whole.

Background of UNCLOS:

UNCLOS was opened for signature on 10 December, 1982 in Montego Bay, Jamaica. This marked the culmination of more than 14 years of work involving participation by more than 150 countries representing all regions of the world. UNCLOS came into force on 16 November, 1994. UNCLOS comprises of 320 articles and nine annexes. It governs all aspects of ocean space, such as delimitation, environmental control, marine scientific research, economic and commercial activities, transfer of technology and the settlement of disputes relating to ocean matters.

Key provisions of UNCLOS:

UNCLOS defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the oceans, and also lays down guidelines for management of marine natural resources. Some important features of the Convention include navigational rights, territorial sea limits, passage of narrow ships through narrow straits, protection of marine environment etc.

Setting limits

Coastal States exercise sovereignty over their territorial sea up to 12 nautical lines from their baseline. Within this limit, the States are in principle free to enforce any law, regulate any use and exploit any resource. Coastal States are also empowered to implement certain rights in an area beyond the territorial sea, extending for 24 nautical miles from their shores, for the purpose of preventing certain violations and enforcing police powers. This area is known as the "contiguous zone". The contiguous zone may be used by a coast guard or its naval equivalent to pursue and, if necessary, arrest and detain suspected drug smugglers, illegal immigrants and customs or tax evaders violating the laws of the coastal State within its territory or the territorial sea. Further, naval and merchant ships have the right of "innocent passage" through the territorial seas of a coastal State.

Archipelagic States

Archipelagic States are made up of a group or groups of closely related islands and interconnecting waters. Example of such states are Indonesia and Philippines. In such States, the territorial sea is a 12-mile zone extending from a line drawn joining the outermost points of the outermost islands of the group that are in close proximity to each other. The waters between the islands are declared archipelagic waters. Ships of all States enjoy the right of innocent passage in the archipelagic waters. In these waters, States may establish sea lanes and air routes where all ships and aircraft enjoy the right of expeditious and unobstructed passage.

Exclusive Economic Zone

The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has had a profound impact on the management and conservation of the resources of the oceans. The EEZ extends to 200 miles from the shores of the coastal States. The coastal States have the right to exploit, develop, manage and conserve all resources - fish or oil, gas or gravel, nodules or sulphur - to be found in the waters, on the ocean floor and in the subsoil of an area extending 200 miles from its shore. UNCLOS also imposes certain obligations on coastal States like encouraging optimum use of fish stocks without risking depletion through overfishing. Coastal States are obliged to give access to others, particularly neighbouring States and land-locked countries, to the surplus of the allowable catch. Such access must be done in accordance with the conservation measures established in the laws and regulations of the coastal State. Coastal States have certain other obligations, including the adoption of measures to prevent and limit pollution and to facilitate marine scientific research in their EEZs.

Obligations under UNCLOS

According to UNCLOS, there are six main sources of ocean pollution, i.e., land-based and coastal activities; continental-shelf drilling; potential seabed mining; ocean dumping; vessel-source pollution; and pollution from or through the atmosphere.

Therefore, UNCLOS lays down the fundamental obligation of all States to protect and preserve the marine environment. Some other obligations under UNCLOS are as follows:

  • States shall take all measures consistent with UNCLOS that are necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from any source, using the best practicable means at their disposal.
  • The States shall minimize to the fullest possible extent

    1. the release of toxic, harmful or noxious substances, especially those which are persistent, from land-based sources, from or through the atmosphere or by dumping;
    2. pollution from vessels, in particular measures for preventing accidents and dealing with emergencies, ensuring the safety of operations at sea, preventing intentional and unintentional discharges, and regulating the design, construction, equipment, operation and manning of vessels;
    3. pollution from installations and devices used in exploration or exploitation of the natural resources of the seabed and subsoil, in particular measures for preventing accidents and dealing with emergencies, ensuring the safety of operations at sea, and regulating the design, construction, equipment, operation and manning of such installations or devices;
    4. pollution from other installations and devices operating in the marine environment, in particular measures for preventing accidents and dealing with emergencies, ensuring the safety of operations at sea, and regulating the design, construction, equipment, operation and manning of such installations or devices.
  • States shall take all measures necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment resulting from the use of technologies under their jurisdiction or control.
  • States shall, consistent with the rights of other States, endeavour to observe, measure, evaluate and analyse, by recognized scientific methods, the risks or effects of pollution of the marine environment.
  • States shall adopt laws and regulations to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from land-based sources, including rivers, estuaries, pipelines and outfall structures, taking into account internationally agreed rules, standards and recommended practices and procedures.
  • States parties are obliged to settle by peaceful means their disputes concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention.


UNCLOS is has been effective in not only empowering coastal States in economic usage of ocean water, but also in imposing obligations to use the same with standards as set forth in the Convention to control and reduce marine pollution. However, there have been challenges in effective implementation of the Convention. Drafting and compliance of the Convention in alignment with national legislation may be a problem. Further, developing States may require assistance in order to benefit from the rights they have acquired under UNCLOS. Nonetheless, it is hoped that United Nations involvement with the law of the sea along with cooperation of countries is expected to expand to ensure that that marine pollution is effectively reduced in the years to come.

For further information please contact at S.S Rana & Co. email: or call at (+91- 11 4012 3000). Our website can be accessed at

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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