07/14/2023, 19.05
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Lithium mining in Kashmir comes with many challenges

The Indian government recently amended its mining legislation to allow private firms to develop  lithium reserves in the Muslim-majority territory to reduce imports from China. The discovery has sparked enthusiasm for electric vehicle production ambitions, but, development several hurdles like potential environmental damage. Meanwhile, India’s Supreme Court next month will start vet petitions challenging the abolition of Jammu and Kashmir’s special autonomy.

Delhi (AsiaNews) – The Indian government has approved a series of amendments to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 to allow private firms to mine for lithium and other minerals essential for the manufacturing of mobile phones, semiconductors, solar panels, electric vehicles, and wind turbines.

This is a major shift for the South Asian country since mining was hitherto controlled by the government, and is probably linked to the discovery in February of 5.9 million tonnes of the element in Reasi, a district in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which is administered by India but also claimed by Pakistan.

Larger reserves were also found recently in Degana, Rajasthan. According to the Indian Geological Survey, 80 per cent of domestic demand for lithium could be met by this single source, making the country independent from China.

“A single exploration licence will encourage more private investment in the sector, where currently private presence is limited,” a government source said.

India aims to achieve a 30 per cent electric vehicle market penetration by 2030, for which lithium – currently imported – is crucial.

Global lithium production surpassed the 100,000-tonne mark in 2021, and India hopes to become a key player in global supply chains.

According to estimates by industry experts, 10 per cent of Kashmir's mineral reserves could cover the production of most cars circulating in India, and the cost of producing a battery could drop by 5 to 7 per cent.

Still, many political, legal, technological and environmental challenges lie ahead. One will come soon from the Supreme Court of India.

India’s highest court recently set up a panel to review the central government’s decision to strip  Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood in 2019.

That year, the Indian parliament, dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, voted to repeal Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gave the Muslim-majority region significant legislative autonomy, the right to its own flag and  constitution.

In anticipation of troubles that might follow this decision, Indian authorities detained pre-emptively local political leaders and suspended the internet.

Both Pakistan and China issued a protest; in Beijing’s case, it was over Ladakh, a Union territory carved out of the pre-existing Jammu and Kashmir state, which is claimed by China.

India's highest court announced that it will start to examine the petitions challenging the government’s decision to change Jammu and Kashmir’s status, starting 2 August.

So far, Delhi has defended its actions, arguing that the change has brought "peace, progress and prosperity" to a territory plagued by decades of unrest. According to the Court, such statements "have no relevance” in the case.

Since violence broke out in the 1980s, India has beefed up its security forces in the area, curbed civil liberties, and since 2019, appointed a lieutenant governor.

But for lithium mining in Kashmir, more hurdles must be overcome. In fact, it could still take years, according to experts, before the quality and exact quantity of this element can be fully assessed.

It seems that, in Kashmir, lithium is mixed with bauxite and India currently does not have the expertise and technology to extract the metal.

In addition, the Himalayan territory is ecologically sensitive. While e-cars can help the government meet its zero emissions target, making batteries risks harming the environment, undermining the gains that could be obtained through clean energy production.

Despite this, the Indian government announced in May that it will auction reserves found  in the territory by the end of the year.

The discovery of new mineral reserves is not accidental, but is part of a wider programme to make India self-sufficient vis-à-vis Chinese imports.

To this end, Delhi has adopted a dual strategy: geological exploration at home with 18 projects across the country, and international acquisitions through the joint venture company Khanij Bidesh India (KABIL) to identify and buy minerals abroad.

According to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, India spent 163 billion rupees (US$ 2 billion) on lithium imports between April and December 2022.

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