Deep in the barren, inhospitable ice fields of Antarctica, 6,600 miles from their balmy, palm-shaded home port in Goa, Indian scientists are making a political point for the Third World.
While carrying out meteorological and geological experiments in the name of science, the team is building what will eventually become the second permanently manned research station in the 5.5 million-square-mile continent.
Although its government sponsors deny any territorial aspirations in the vast southern land mass, the team is acquiring the credentials needed for India to join an exclusive club of nations that someday may determine how Antarctica's enormous mineral and energy resources are divided.
The point the scientists are making on the ground in a lonely, wind-swept colony they dubbed "the southern Ganges," is the same made last year in the Indian Parliament by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she said, "We do not subscribe to the view that only a very few rich countries have the right to such uninhabited, secluded places."
The name itself symbolizes India's stake in Antarctica and its underground riches, harkening back to an old geological theory that 200 million years ago India, Africa and Antarctica were joined in a single land mass that broke up and drifted apart in a violent shifting of the earth's surface.
While accumulating valuable data and setting up a permanent station, the 28-member research team is meeting the qualifications of "substantial scientific research activity" needed for India to join the consultative committee of the 14 signatory nations of the 1959 Antarctica Treaty.
A debate is underway in the government over whether India should sign the treaty and seek membership on the consultative committee--warily regarded as "the club" by most of the Third World--or whether it should assert the same principle of non-exclusivism that is its basis for refusing to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and thereby preserve its options for future territorial claims.
"It is a political decision that of course will be made only at the highest level. At the moment, we are interested only in science, and this is a paradise for scientists that cannot be found anywhere else," said S. Z. Qasim, secretary of the Department of Ocean Development and the leader of India's first exploratory expedition to Antarctica in 1981.
Third World concern that the Antarctica Treaty members--most of them developed nations--may decide among themselves how to divide Antarctica's riches has not been lessened by a series of meetings held by the consultative committee to discuss control of exploitation of the continent's mineral resources.
The treaty nations are scheduled to meet later this month in Wellington, New Zealand, to discuss controls of exploration and mining of energy resources. They are: the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, Japan, Australia, Norway, Belgium, South Africa, New Zealand, Poland, West Germany, Argentina and Chile.
The United States has estimated that Antarctica holds 50 billion barrels of oil and 115 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, as well as probably the world's largest coal field and huge iron and uranium deposits.
Gandhi's only stated preference so far has been for the world to declare Antarctica a "common heritage of mankind," with its riches available to all of humanity, of which India constitutes 20 percent and presumably would claim a proportionate share.
But the principle of common heritage, mired so deeply in the continuing acrimony of the Law of the Seas debate over seabed mining, is viewed warily by many Third World countries, who interpret the term as a mask for exploitation by the industrialized nations.
Although it is not yet on the agenda, the issue is likely to be raised during the seventh Nonaligned Movement summit that will be held here next month.
Also likely to be at issue is the vast quantity of krill, a shrimp-like crustacean rich in protein that could become an important addition to the food resources of India and other heavily populated Third World nations.
But for the time being, India's only exploitation of the vast Antarctica has been of knowledge, and in the opinion of Qasim, an oceanographer, that is enough.
Sailing on a chartered Norwegian icebreaker, the Polar Circle, on the first expedition in December 1981, Qasim's research team had not even reached its destination when it discovered a 3,500-foot underwater mountain, which was immediately named Mt. Indira in honor of the prime minister.
Setting up its "southern Ganges" station on land claimed by Norway in 1939, the Indian team began a series of experiments that Qasim said yielded valuable data that had practical use for India.
For example, he said, Antarctica's meteorological influence on streams of warm and cold water in the earth's oceans could be the key to weather patterns on the Subcontinent, particularly the monsoon rains that are so vital to agriculture here.
The team also conducted experiments in glaciology, did geographic and seismic surveys, studied birds and animals and conducted numerous other research projects, Qasim said.
The second expedition, which left late in December and will return in four months, will conduct similar experiments, and will also survey a 10,000-foot airstrip and erect two prefabricated shelters for use as a permanent station sometime in 1985. Only the Soviet Union has a year-around station in Antarctica, while other nations leave their stations unattended during the severe winter from April to September.
Until the scientists gain more expertise in living and working in the harsh Antarctica, Qasim said, he will not place a permanently manned station there.
In the meantime, Gandhi and her counselors will grapple with the question of how to turn a $2 million exercise in national prestige into an assurance of an Indian stake in the riches that the forbidding Antarctica will someday yield.