Risks and Benefits of a Large Lithium Discovery

The discovery of 5.9 million tonnes of lithium in Jammu and Kashmir is a significant boost to India’s electrification plans, but mining in the ecologically sensitive Himalayas is a high-risk, high-reward game.

India’s lithium wealth

  • Massive deposits: Authorities have found 5.9 million tonnes of lithium reserves in Reasi district of Jammu & Kashmir.
  • One of the largest mines: This may be the seventh largest deposit of the rare element, accounting for roughly 5.7% of all the reserves in the world.
  • High grade quality: They are also said to be of a higher grade—550 parts per million (ppm) against the average 220 ppm—making it highly lucrative, given how lithium prices have soared in the last few years.

Game-changing prospects for India

  • White gold: Due to its ability to pack energy, it has utility across a range of sectors and has gained the moniker ‘white gold’.
  • Lithium prices increased more than sevenfold between the beginning of 2021 and the end of 2022, according to the International Energy Agency.
  • It is now primarily used to manufacture the batteries that power modern appliances.
  • EV push: They also power electric vehicles, which will account for the majority of global lithium production in the future.
  • Import reduction: India currently does not have its own lithium resources and, like crude oil, is reliant on imports. India imported lithium and lithium ion worth nearly 14,000 crore in fiscal 2022.

Will batteries be made of lithium from India now?

  • Before miners can extract lithium for industrial use, there is still some work to be done.
  • According to the UN Framework Classification of Mineral Resources, the discovery is ‘inferred’ or preliminary, the lowest of three levels of estimation of a mineral deposit and the second of four stages of exploration.
  • Before its true worth can be determined, much research must be conducted.

Pitfalls of lithium mining

  • Pollution in the valley: Open-pit-mining, refining, and waste disposal from these processes substantially degrades the environment, including depletes and contaminates waterways and groundwater, diminishes biodiversity, and releases considerable air pollution.
  • Water intensity: Extracting lithium from its ore requires a lot of water, about 2.2 million litres for one tonne of lithium.
  • Seismic threats: The Himalayas are a highly fragile and environmentally sensitive region, and as the recent Joshimath subsidence demonstrates, it is vulnerable to the long-term negative consequences of unplanned development works.
  • Mining in the region has the potential to displace local communities and have significant social consequences. The region is home to a number of indigenous communities that may be harmed by mining in the area.
  • Unwarranted activism in Kashmir: Environmentalists and so-called separatists masquerading as national leaders may oppose mining in the region.

Geographical considerations

  • Due to the geopolitical sensitivity of its location, the new lithium discovery in J&K has significant geostrategic implications.
  • The Union territory of J&K has a history of cross-border tensions, domestic insurgency, and terrorism.
  • Local populist resentment: A lack of meaningful engagement with the local populace in the Li extraction project could open up new frontiers of socio-environmental conflict.

China factor

  • The global lithium-ion battery manufacturing industry is currently dominated by China.
  • The reliance on China for Li and other critical metals and derivatives poses a threat to energy security.
  • Major economies such as the European Union, the United States, Canada, and India are looking for alternative supplies in order to challenge China’s geopolitical dominance.

Initiatives by Indians in this regard

  • Undaunted trade with China: Because of the growing geopolitical rivalry with China and long-standing territorial disputes, India’s security concerns are more pressing.
  • The Indian government and industry are pushing for a “Rare Earths Mission” to reduce reliance on China and exploit the country’s critical mineral reserves.

@the end

  • In effect, the proliferation of EVs may lead to India becoming dependent on China, just as it is currently dependent on the Middle East for crude oil.
  • J&K’s reserves, on the other hand, present a significant opportunity for India to become self-sufficient.
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