ABOUT THIRTY MONTHS ago, a Geological Survey of India (GSI) team landed at Salal, a hilly village in Jammu, with large machines, drilled over 30 holes nearly 20 metres deep in the rocks, took samples from the core, sealed those in large boxes and drove away with the boxes. “What they dug out looked like soil and some grainy material,” recalls Sunil Madyal, a villager.
Since then, ‘government vehicles’ have been frequenting the village off and on, taking samples and photographs. About six months ago, the villagers heard on television news channels that geologists had struck lithium in the village. It was not gold, but ‘white gold’. Media headed to the village, till then known for the Salal dam on the Chenab river, in Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir. Salal came into the spotlight for its lithium, a soft, non-ferrous sought-after metal, crucial for batteries to power electric vehicles (EVs). The villagers, happy and apprehensive, were in front of the cameras, talking to the national media. Madyal also gave interviews. “Even nearly three decades ago, a team from a company came looking for minerals. We didn’t know what it was. But now we are aware of what lithium is,” he says, reeling out its uses—batteries for electric vehicles, mobile phones, laptops, solar panels, etc.
In February this year, the Narendra Modi government announced that GSI has, for the first time, established lithium “inferred” resources of 5.9 million tonnes in the Salal-Haimana area of Reasi district. The discovery of one of the world’s most in-demand minerals is seen as a game-changer for India. It could energise the country’s plans for transition to EVs, phasing out fossil fuel-run automobiles to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, galvanising India’s clean energy and “aatmanirbhar (self-reliance)” goals. With targets like 30 per cent EV penetration for private automobiles, 70 per cent in commercial vehicles and 80 per cent in two and three-wheelers by 2030, using indigenous lithium would reduce dependence on imports from countries like China (and the special region of Hong Kong), which now meet around 70 per cent of India’s requirement. India spent `163 billion on the import of lithium and lithium-ion between April and December 2022, according to data from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
Losing no time in making the best of the lithium stockpile, the government decided to lift the ban on its mining, besides five other minerals. In August, during Parliament’s Monsoon Session, the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation (MMDR) Act was amended, making way for private companies to mine them. Earlier, only state-run companies could mine these minerals. In response to queries from Open, the Ministry of Mines said that through the amendment, lithium-bearing minerals have been removed from the list of atomic minerals and the Central government is taking steps to start the auction of lithium blocks expeditiously. A notification will be published “shortly” on the amendment to the mineral auction rules.
India’s battery requirement, which is now roughly 43 gigawatt hours (Gwh), is predicted to be nearly 825 Gwh (one gigawatt is the equivalent of one billion watts, so 1.21 GW can power 10 million 60-100 watt light bulbs) by 2030, according to an International Council on Clean Transportation working paper. “In the transition to electric vehicles, the lithium discovery is looking promising and has the potential to transform the entire industry. As of now, the cells for the battery are imported, but once lithium is available to us here, we will manufacture it in India. It will bring down prices drastically,” says Pawan Mulukutla, director, Electric Mobility, at WRI India.
By 2030, when India hopes to achieve its EV target, it could be using its own lithium. According to the ministry, as per existing rules, upon auction of a mineral block, the mining lease for it is required to be executed within three years. After that, two years would be given to start production and dispatch from the mine. Vital for a low-carbon emission economy and meeting the country’s net-zero commitment by 2070, lithium is seen as an elixir for industries like EV batteries and automobiles. As of now, Australia and Chile dominate the global supply of lithium, which is processed in China. The lithium stockpile in India brings it onto the list of nations in possession of the resource which, besides Australia and Chile, is concentrated in a few countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, China, and Brazil. “These finds in J&K alone put India sixth amongst the countries with large lithium deposits. China has 5.1 million tonnes of lithium deposits, and it mines about 14,000 tonnes, but it also imports a huge amount. India is speedily ramping up its electric vehicle industry, both for the domestic and export markets. If costs are to be competitive, a domestic source of lithium will greatly help in keeping them stable. The industry requires lithium and also the downstream battery industry to expand. The latter is already picking up speed, with dynamic companies such as Log9 and others,” says K VijayRaghavan, former principal scientific advisor to the government.
The search for lithium in India goes back to the mid-1990s. It all started with a project of geochemical survey for bauxite in 1980-90, says S Raju, former director general, GSI. When digging was being carried out for bauxite, deep into the sedimentary rocks, geologists found lithium inside the core in the Salal area. In 1997, two GSI geologists had submitted a report about the presence of lithium in the region. It said the bauxite columns in Salal and adjoining areas appear to be a promising horizon for lithium. In 2019, government officials dug out old reports and started holding a series of meetings with GSI, leading to the search for it. “There were lots of studies on chances of finding lithium. These helped and we pushed for it, carrying out surveys over the last two-three years. Luckily, this time we found it,” says Amit Sharma, who was secretary, mining, Jammu and Kashmir, during the findings in Salal.
The discovery of one of the most in-demand minerals is seen as a game-changer. It could energise plans for India’s transition to EVs, phasing out fossil fuel-run automobiles. Indigenous lithium would reduce dependence on imports from countries like China
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In May, when S Raju retired, he had asked his department to send 300kg of the material for beneficiation, a method in metallurgy to improve the economic value of the ore by removing the gangue, unwanted substances or minerals surrounding it, a process that results in a higher-grade product or ore concentrate. In June, by the time Sharma was transferred from Jammu and Kashmir to Ladakh, the beneficiation process was underway. Since lithium is hard to separate from gangue because of similarities in the minerals, both physical and chemical separation techniques are used. The lithium found in Salal is of a higher grade in terms of purity, with 550 parts per million (ppm), against the normal 220 ppm, as per the G3 stage, a preliminary exploration, report. According to Raju, some samples collected from the drilling, over a three square km area, were detected to have even 1,200 ppm, but based on the volumes and average, it was calculated at 550 ppm.
Experts say the final deposit could be slightly less than the 5.9 million tonnes predicted at the G3 level, after all the processes are completed. After handing over the report to the Jammu and Kashmir government, GSI said in March that it proposed to carry out more exploration activities in the Union territory for identifying lithium resources and that the value of lithium there will be estimated on completion of further exploration. In May, there were reports that lithium had also been found in the Degana region of Rajasthan. GSI, however, said that it was carrying out exploration for minerals like lithium and tungsten since 2019-20 in the region and the drilling work was still underway. According to the mines ministry, GSI has undertaken 118 blocks of critical minerals for exploration in 2021-22, 123 in 2022- 23, and 124 so far in 2023-24.
“While other explorations will take their course, the J&K find itself is big and provides a tactical cushion. Globally, the challenge is not principally lithium deposits, but that of its supply chains at stable costs,” says VijayRaghavan. At the same time, he perceives a big challenge in making the conversion of these reserves into usable resources, at costs that are frugal compared to imports, whose costs can wildly fluctuate. It would, therefore, need an initial strategic commitment to get usable resources while also saving reserves, he says.
Amidst reports that the lithium reserves could be auctioned by year-end, there has been speculation in the media about companies like Mitsubishi, Tesla, and Ola Electric being keen on contending to bid. While a typical battery for EVs uses about 8kg of lithium, it can go up depending on battery size. Tesla, which relies for lithium on suppliers in the US and China, is estimated to use around 12kg of lithium in the Tesla Model S battery. In Tesla’s forecasts, it indicates that the company will need approximately 1,000 kilotonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) per year by 2030, which is 16 times its 2022 needs and 30 per cent more than what the world currently produces. It is estimated that for every 1 per cent increase in the EV battery market penetration, there is an increase in lithium demand by 70,000 tonnes LCE per year. A World Bank report has said that the production of minerals like lithium, cobalt and graphite would need to rise by 500 per cent by 2050 to meet clean-energy technologies. Most mobile phones rely on a lithium-ion battery, which uses less than a gram of lithium as the medium for energy storage. Besides, in pharmaceuticals, lithium, prescribed in precise doses, is used as a mood stabiliser to treat manic episodes in bipolar disorder.
Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari, who wants to accelerate the phasing out of fossil fuels in India, has said that if the lithium-ion from resources found in Jammu and Kashmir can be used, India, which imports 1,200 tonnes of lithium, will become the No 1 automobile manufacturing country in the world in the EV segment. As of now, India is the third-largest automobile market after China and the US.
Back in Salal, there are mixed sentiments, of hope and fear. “We feel proud that our village has become famous and the resource found here will be good for the country. But there is concern about how the villagers who will be displaced are rehabilitated,” says Mohinder Singh, the sarpanch of Salal. About 325 households would need to be shifted. Some of them have cattle and sheep. On the rocks of Salal, the villagers could not grow much so they had to bring soil to grow wheat and maize. Most of the locals in the village of over 3,000 people work as contract labourers. While there is hope of compensation and jobs, there is concern about leaving their ancestral homes and the life they have lived till now. The villagers say government officials have indicated that the final report on the exploration will be ready in a couple of months. The villagers believe there may be more precious metals in the rocks. For them, the excavations have raised several questions.
According to the Ministry of Mines, as per the provisions of the MMDR Act, successful bidders are required to obtain surface rights for land where the mineral is located. In case of private land, the bidder may either purchase the land or obtain permission of the land owner upon payment of surface compensation.
Sharma says the villagers have been told they will be relocated. “If metallurgy plants are set up in the region, it can help the locals get jobs and boost the overall economy. It requires water and the river is right there.”