The discovery of major lithium deposits is being seen as a mixed blessing in India's troubled Kashmir region, where hopes for a major economic boost are tempered by fears of human displacement and damage to the territory's fragile ecology.
The finding of the lithium, key to the manufacture of batteries used in electric cars and other electronic devices, is likely very good news for India as a whole, promising to save the country billions of dollars as it seeks to move its economy away from fossil fuels.
It also offers the hope of good-paying jobs in Kashmir, where investment has been in decline amid political uncertainty and frequent internet shutdowns since the Indian government revoked the region's autonomous status in 2019.
But residents in the southwestern Reasi district of Jammu & Kashmir where the deposits are located say they are torn between those hopes and a fear of being driven off their land to make way for mining operations, as well as concern about the impact on local vegetation and wildlife.
The Geological Survey of India has estimated the area holds 5.9 million metric tons of lithium valued at around $410 billion, although further studies will be needed to determine the quality of the lithium and confirm it can be recovered.
If initial hopes are borne out, the deposit would represent a significant share of the world's known lithium reserves, which were estimated last year by the U.S. Geological Survey at just 80.7 million tons. The Indian government plans to hold auctions for the reserves as early as June, with the caveat that refined lithium can only be processed within India.
"The scale of the reserves is significant and can — if proven to be commercially viable — reduce India's reliance on imports of lithium-ion cells, which are a key component for EV batteries and other clean energy technologies," said Siddharth Goel, a senior policy adviser at the Canada-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, in an interview with VOA.
"These reserves could potentially be a huge carrot to attract investment into domestic battery manufacturing and other clean energy technologies," he said.
Having a domestic source of lithium would dramatically improve India's prospects of meeting its goal of achieving 30% electric vehicle penetration for private cars, 70% for commercial vehicles, and 80% for two and three-wheelers by 2030.
India's ministry of commerce data shows that India spent around $3.2 billion importing lithium between 2018 and 2021, money that would remain in the country if the lithium could be produced domestically. By speeding its transition to electric vehicles, India also hopes to reduce its dependency on imported oil.
"It will help India reduce import bill substantially and boost domestic production if the entire reserve can be extracted sustainably and is economically viable," said Pradeep Karuturi, a researcher at the India-based OMI Foundation, a new-age policy research and social innovation think tank.
"However, it may take years for actual output so it's important for India to create a cohesive multi-dimensional policy to strengthen energy security," he said.
Effect on environment
Kashmiri environmentalists are more focused on the impact that lithium extraction will have on the ecology of the scenic Himalayan region. A report published by an environmental organization, the Nature Conservancy, notes that proven technologies for lithium extraction require vast amounts of land and can result in the removal of native vegetation.
Earlier this month, a group of NGOs including Climate Front Jammu, Environmental Awareness Forum and Nature Human Centric People's Movement organized a climate strike at Press Club Jammu to express their concerns.
The founding director of Climate Front India, Anmol Ohri, told VOA the mining could cause irreversible harm to the ecosystem and adversely affect the indigenous and local communities near the mining area.
"If regulations are not stringent enough, this discovery could result in the communities surrounding the region abandoning their homes and relocating to urban areas, resulting in a loss of cultural heritage," he said.
Kulwant Raj, a local resident and former candidate in area elections, said residents are pleased about the economic prospects that the deposits represent but simultaneously fear the government will confiscate their land.
While not opposed to mining in the area, Raj told VOA, the locals would like to be relocated to someplace nearby and compensated with government jobs.
Goel said it is important for the government of India to look to the experience of other countries as it seeks to balance the economic benefits of the lithium discovery with the environmental and social safeguards demanded by residents.
"Meaningful representation and participation of local communities in decision-making are essential to prevent community opposition to lithium mining," he said. "As India is looking to export li-ion batteries, ensuring an environmentally friendly mining process is also essential to attract investment from large international companies given the growing global scrutiny of the battery value chain's environmental footprint."