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India: Mixed reactions to major lithium discovery

Samaan Lateef in Srinagar
March 16, 2023

Almost 6 metric million tons of lithium have been discovered in Indian-administered Kashmir. Authorities hope lithium mining will help India become more self-reliant. Critics say it will only worsen global warming.

A river in Indian-administered Kashmir
Kashmir could have some of the purest lithium reserves Image: ingimage/Wirestock/IMAGO

Salal is a picturesque village in Indian-administered Kashmir that is currently being touted as India's chance to become self-sufficient in lithium. The soft, white metal is a vital component in the batteries used to power electric vehicles (EVs), mobile phones, and computers and has become a highly sought-after element in the global race towards decarbonization.

Pankaj Srivastava, a professor of geology at the University of Jammu, told DW that the discovery of lithium in India was a promising development that could help the country become more self-reliant.

"As the world shifts towards renewable energy, electric cars are becoming increasingly important, and the demand for lithium-ion batteries is growing," he said. "By finding a domestic source of lithium, Indiacould potentially reduce its dependence on imports and boost its economy."

The lithium-ion story

"From solar energy to Mission Hydrogen to EVs, we need to take these initiatives to the next level for energy independence," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared last year on India's Independence Day last August.

The discovery of 5.9 million tons puts India on the map as having the fifth-largest reservoir of this precious metal.

A senior officer at the region's Geology and Mining Department told DW that the lithium found in Salal was also the purest found so far, as it is graded at 500 parts per million (PPM) compared to the normal grade of 220 parts per million (PPM) found in other deposits.

"It will be interesting to see how this discovery will impact the global lithium market and the production of lithium-ion batteries that are used in various electronic devices," he said.

Aerial view of salt flat under which there are lithium reserves
Much of the world's lithium is extracted in South AmericaImage: Georg Ismar/dpa/picture alliance

'Mixed feelings of fear and joy'

In Salal itself, there were "mixed feelings of fear and joy," village head Pritam Singh told DW. "The whole village will be displaced because of the lithium extraction, and we will lose our ancestral homes, but there is a hope that it will bring jobs to our unemployed youth and prosperity to our village."

"I am excited that our village, which has never got the attention of past governments, will contribute to the economy of our country," said retired Indian Army soldier Romel Singh. "It is painful to lose our ancestral village, but we are ready to make this sacrifice for the prosperous future of our kids," he said. "It will bring more jobs and improve our living standards."

Critics of the lithium mining project fear that the groundwater crisis will be exacerbated given the huge amounts of water needed to extract lithium.

Vaibhav Rakwal, 25, a local lawyer, expressed surprise that surveyors had failed to take into account that a major river flowed under the foothills of the mountain where the lithium has been discovered. "If the mountain sinks just a few centimeters, it will change the course of the Chenab River and flood the whole area," he warned.

"It won't bring any economic opportunities to local people but will certainly trigger an ecological disaster and potential shortage of drinking water," he said.

A person with a shovel of white substance
Lithium is used to power electronic vehicles and mobile phones Image: Gaston Brito Miserocchi/Getty Images

Bleak future for farmers

"What worries me is the water crisis and pollution it can trigger," agreed Pragasho Devi, 56. "We are already facing a shortage of drinking water and if they start mining, we won't have enough water for us, for our livestock."

Most of Salal's 10,000 inhabitants make a living from agriculture and cattle farming.

"Our days in Salal are counted," Devi continued. "We have cared for these fields like our own children. What is the use of this lithium if we have to leave behind our ancestral houses? It is a tragedy."

Devi had intended to build a house for her elder son so that he could live separately with his family but she had to abandon her plans when she found out that the authorities wanted to relocate them elsewhere.

There has already been displacement in the area due to other infrastructure projects in the area. In the 1980s, the locals lost almost 70% of their agricultural land when an artificial lake was built for a 690-MW hydroelectric power station in the 1980s.

Edited by: Anne Thomas