Salal, Jammu: Mahatam Singh, a 55-year-old farmer, is witnessing heavy footfall in his otherwise sleepy hometown. The village of Salal, in the Reasi district of Jammu, is booming with entourages of vehicles carrying government officials, mining experts, policy makers, media and curious locals from neighbouring areas.

The bustle has been triggered by the discovery of a Lithium reserve in Salal, a region nestled in the Himalayan mountains. “This rush feels abnormal, as if we are preparing for some war,” says Singh, an 11th generation farmer.

At around 80 km from Jammu city, the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir, Salal is home to around 3,198 people as per Census 2011, and is located by the river Chenab on the foothills of towering mountain peaks. On February 9, 2023, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) announced the presence of 5.9 million tonnes of ‘inferred’ lithium in Salal.

“Earlier, India was dependent on imported lithium,” Amit Sharma, mining secretary in the Jammu and Kashmir government, told IndiaSpend. “This discovery has opened a new window for us. A beneficiation study is going on right now. A good quantity of ore is being tested in the laboratories. This study will determine the actual quantum of the material.”

The government is now in the process of preparing the e-auction documents. “These documents will contain all the terms, conditions, guidelines and regulations for lithium extraction,” Sharma said.

Apart from creating the potential for Indian supremacy in the mineral race in the Asian region, the discovery has triggered celebrations in manufacturing units of lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicles, and is seen as a game changer in the clean energy sector.

In 2022-23, India, as per data submitted in Parliament, imported lithium-ion (electric accumulators) worth Rs 18,554 crore, with a majority of this, around 76%, coming from China and 11% from Hong Kong. In the same period, India has imported lithium (primary cells and batteries) worth around Rs 208 crore, around 30% of which is from China and 25% from Hong Kong.

Lithium in Jammu and Kashmir

Rajender Singh, deputy sarpanch of Salal, walked us past one of the spots where mining experts from the GSI had conducted drilling and tests over the last two years. The village was aware that the government was working on some major project in the area. “In the last two or three years, when the country and the world was struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic and its after-effects, a GSI team was stationed in Salal conducting regular drilling and tests at several spots,” says Rajender.

The GSI team had shared with Rajender that they were working on something that will change the fate of Salal and the whole country. “They had rented my house for two years and every morning, they used to visit the fields, marking the spots and drilling at some places.”

The terraced terrain of Salal, where GSI conducted the examination and drilling, is different from the regular green hills dotting other parts of the region. Salal is a rough, rusty-brown rocky terrain covered with a layer of soil at some places, where the villagers grow wheat and maize. Stones and rocks are covered with ball-bearing shaped material.

Video: Salal, where the Geological Survey of India has identified lithium reserves

In the past, senior citizens in the area told us, this ball-bearing shaped material was carved out of these rocks and used as ammunition in the guns they used for hunting. Locals claim that they were all along aware that these hills were somewhat different from the rest of the nearby areas. And now GSI has officially declared that a treasure of ‘white gold’ lies beneath these hills of Salal.

“We are at a preliminary stage, and two more stages of exploration are to be done before extraction of lithium,” says Pankaj Srivastava, a professor at the Department of Geology, University of Jammu. “We have to do the G2 (general exploration) stage, where more studies are to be done to estimate the shape, size, and quality. This will be followed by the G1 stage (detailed exploration), where characteristics of the deposit will be established with a high degree of accuracy.”

Exploration is itself a very costly and risky process. “For the next two explorations we need time and money, only then can we conclude that the metal is in condition to extract or not,” he says, adding that the only challenge right now is to ascertain the kind of technology to be used for the extraction.

If the reserve in India is extractable to the exact amount of 5.9 million tons, India will become the 7th largest country in terms of Lithium reserve after Bolivia, Argentina, the United States, Chile, Australia and China.

“Bolivia has 21 million tons, but the production is negligible. Against this, 94% of the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries is with Asian countries such as China, South Korea, and Japan. And China alone accounts for 44% market share and controls the manufacturing sector,” says Parveen Kumar, Senior Programme Manager, of Electric Mobility at World Resources Institute, India. Kumar says India has the technical know-how to extract lithium, but the gap is in the manufacturing of active material and cells.

Salal’s bitter experience

Many in the village of Salal are supporters of the BJP, we found, and are hopeful that the whole village will benefit from the latest discovery. They expect to be relocated somewhere near their village in Reasi, and that basic facilities such as schools, primary health centres, drinking water, roads and land for farming will be available.

Officials from the Union territory government have assured the village community that a policy for the relocation of locals will be formulated which will be beneficial to them. However, the demons of developmental projects in the past still haunt the villagers.

“Our elders trust the government too easily,” says Ranbir Singh, 35. “Earlier, during the construction of the Salal dam for hydro power in the 1970s, locals were promised heaven but ended up losing land and natural habitation near the Chenab River. We are now not willing to relocate unless the government takes locals on board in all the decisions.”

Chenab river, Reasi district

In the wake of construction of the dam, says Karan Singh, an ex-serviceman employed with the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, locals had to change their farming practices, which impacted their livelihood and even food habits. Locals used to grow paddy, taking advantage of the proximity to the Chenab river.

When construction began, however, the people of Salal were relocated well away from the water reserve, because of which they had to grow wheat and maize, which are not water-intensive. The village also suffered scarcity of drinking water.

Fifty-five-year-old Parkasho Devi walked towards a nearby well, carrying a plastic bucket and accompanied by four children carrying plastic bottles, to fetch drinking water. “The government has always exploited Reasi for its own interests,” she lamented. “They built the dam with no consideration for the concerns of the locals of Salal. We gave them our private lands for the construction of the dam, and we were left without proper water supply and regular electricity supply.”

In the village, small groups of young men and old can be seen squatting on shop parapets, in small dhabas, and in a local restaurant discussing these issues and vowing to not relent to any governmental pressure this time.

India’s race for clean energy

The discovery of lithium is, according to experts, the cornerstone of India's efforts in the clean energy sector.

India is the world's third biggest emitter of carbon dioxide after China and the United States. Also, India represents the fifth largest automobile market in the world, and is the world's largest three-wheeler, second largest two-wheeler and third largest passenger vehicle manufacturer.

The country depends massively on oil imports. An April 2023 report by the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell (Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas) mentions that India’s oil import dependency was 85% in 2019-20, 84.4% in 2020-21, and is expected go up to 87.3% in 2022-23.

With this as context, at the COP-26 summit Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged an ambitious target of net zero emission by 2070, and also said India will lower its emission intensity by 45% by 2030.

Experts believe that electric vehicles can help to achieve the target, as over 80% of India’s energy needs are currently met by three fuels--coal, oil and biomass. Experts in the EV business reiterate that pollution in big cities is one of the major reasons for the government of India to move towards EV promotion in the country.

A study by World Resources Institute, India, notes that within the transportation sector, electric mobility transition is a core pillar of deep decarbonisation, as it has the potential to make renewable power a significant low-cost transportation fuel in the future.

But before achieving these targets, India has to tackle many challenges. “Limited domestic battery-manufacturing capabilities and a nonexistent supply chain are hurdles to building EVs under the Government of India’s ‘Make in India’ framework,” says the WRI study. “The fact that the supply of minerals needed for commercially available battery technologies--lithium, cobalt, and nickel--are dominated by a handful of countries is another bump in the road.”

As many countries are in a race to achieve greener electric mobility and greener solutions among renewable energy options, demand for lithium has increased across the globe. In 2020, the World Bank in a report, said that the production of minerals such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, could increase by nearly 500% by 2050 to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies.

Since 2022, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy of the Government of India has also signed Memorandums of Understanding and Joint Declarations of Intent regarding new and renewable energy technology and clean energy with Australia, Finland, the UAE and Germany.

Jeevan Kumar Jethani, a scientist at the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, responded to IndiaSpend on June 27, and said that, “the assessment about the quantum and quality of Lithium is going on and therefore it will be too early to comment” on how the find will benefit the country. Since currently imported lithium is being used as raw material for battery energy storage applications for electric vehicles and integration of variable renewable energy sources with the electricity grid, any quantum made available within the country will benefit the citizens, he added.

Electric vehicle sales and safety concerns

The sales of electric vehicles has been growing. As per data by Vahan portal, electric vehicles sold in India for the financial year 2022-23 were 1,171,944, whereas during the financial year 2021-22, it was 458,746.

As per data from the Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles (SMEV), two-wheelers top with 1,255,684 units sold till June 2023. However, Ajay Sharma from SMEV says that recently, the Ministry of Heavy Industries has notified changes for reducing subsidy on electric two wheelers under the FAME-II Scheme to 15% per vehicle, from the earlier 40%.

“Vehicles which are registered from June 1, 2023 or afterwards will be given only 15% subsidy,” Sharma said. “This move will only trigger a decline in EV adoption.”

Another factor that dampens adoption of EVs is safety. In 2022, dozens of two-wheelers had caught fire. In one such incident in May this year in Kashmir, two persons were injured in a blast of the battery installed in an electric scooter.

Blame for such incidents was placed variously on cheap Chinese battery cells, India’s extreme heat conditions that are harmful for batteries, and similar issues. The government ordered a probe, which found that the battery management system (BMS), which is the primary software part of electric vehicles, was not adequately present across most electric vehicles that caught fire. Poor quality cells and other technical glitches were also discovered.

Kashmir-based engineer Hanan Ahmad, an expert in electric vehicles, said that the consumer should follow the guidelines while using electric vehicles. “After the exhaustion of the battery, it should not be immediately put on charge because the battery remains at high temperature and requires cooling down at least for 45 minutes,” says Hanan. He added that due to lack of enough charging stations, consumers mainly charge these batteries in their homes, where there is no proper ventilation and where the voltage can fluctuate, causing damage to the battery.

Hanan believes that development of charging stations requires not only huge investment from the government, but regular electricity supply as well, which is deficient in most parts of the country, especially outside the main cities and towns, where the majority of the population lives.

In the eighth edition of the global conference on energy efficiency held by the International Energy Agency, experts said that by 2030, global electricity demand for electric vehicles (including two/three-wheelers) could reach 550 TeraWatt/hour, which is about a six-fold rise from 2019.

Policies and schemes to make India self-reliant in EV manufacturing

In 2015, the Government of India started the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles (FAME-I -India), a scheme in which incentives were also given to electric vehicles powered by lead-acid batteries. In 2019, another scheme was introduced--FAME-II--in which subsidy was excluded for lead acid battery vehicles. This was the actual push for lithium-ion batteries.

“Electric two- and three-wheelers account for almost 95% of the total EV adoption in India,” says Praveen Kumar of WRI. “The battery packs used for them are imported from China and from other countries.

"To avoid the transition from oil import to battery import, and also to address the challenges of supply vulnerability and cost fluctuations, the government of India has announced the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme for Advanced Chemistry Cell-ACC, with an Rs 18,100 crore budget, to encourage cell manufacturing in India.”

The Ministry of Heavy Industries has sanctioned 2,877 electric vehicle charging stations in 68 cities across 25 states/UTs, and 1,576 charging stations across nine Expressways and 16 Highways under phase-II of FAME.

"In the transportation sector, battery-powered vehicles are leading the transition in electric three-wheelers, two-wheelers, cars, and other light vehicle segments, whereas, in the heavy vehicle segment, we may see the presence of a mix of fuel technologies (e.g. hydrogen fuel-cell, CNG, etc) driving the transition, and this is mainly due to the technical limitation of the batteries. Also, we require more charging points to enable the long-distance travel of electric vehicles," Parveen Kumar points out.

"In the transportation sector, battery-powered vehicles are leading the transition in electric three-wheelers, two-wheelers, cars, and other light vehicle segments, whereas, in the heavy vehicle segment, we may see the presence of a mix of fuel technologies (e.g. hydrogen fuel-cell, CNG, etc) driving the transition, and this is mainly due to the technical limitation of the batteries. Also, we require more charging points to enable the long-distance travel of electric vehicles," Parveen Kumar points out.

Salal’s struggle ahead

Amid this national push for EVs and focus on the clean energy sector, Salal has to fight its battle of survival alone. Locals say that national ambitions and development should not drown their small world once again.

As the initial enthusiasm triggered with this ‘fate-changing’ discovery of lithium in the region evaporates, locals fear forced displacement, loss of agriculture-based livelihood and environment degradation. “We thought this treasure trove would change our lives for good,” says Rajender Singh. “The whole village was distributing sweets a few weeks ago, but now we’re disappointed.”

The government, locals allege, has completed the demarcation process of structures, but no policy for rehabilitation of residents has been formulated yet. “We are ready to negotiate with the government, but we want to live together for the sake of our culture and identity.” Singh also says that 70% of the lithium reserve lies under government land, and only 30% is under land owned by the villagers. “This seems to be the reason why the government is not taking the concerns of residents seriously.”

“Yes, we have completed the demarcation of houses and other structures, and presently we are counting trees,” says Reasi revenue official Suresh Singh. “Revenue department has no information about the relocation of the local population and cannot reveal details of demarcation as it is confidential information right now.”

The area around Salal has already witnessed changes in its water security due to two major developmental projects of Salal dam across the Chenab, and the world’s highest railway bridge on the Chenab River between the nearby villages of Bakkal and Kauri, around 20 km from Salal.

The bridge between Bakkal and Kauri

Besides the impact on local agriculture, these projects have impacted wildlife in the area as well. Ranbir Singh says that huge numbers of wildlife got displaced due to the construction of the railway bridge. “We used to have regular sightings of wild goat, peacock, black deer and Nilgai in this area, but that is not the case anymore.”

Apart from fears within the community of the threat to their physical and cultural togetherness, the discovery of lithium has additionally triggered an eco-alarm in the young Himalayan mountains that is already facing the heat of climate change.

“Mining process of lithium is not environment friendly,” says Arshid Jahangir, an environment expert from Jammu and Kashmir. “The process also releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the environment. For one ton of lithium, around 2.2 million litres of water is required.”

A research report was published by Institute of Physics (IOP) on socio-environmental impacts of lithium mineral extraction. It notes that in the past 40 years, research has evolved but these are not necessarily inclusive enough to address the sustainability challenges stemming from increased technology adoption with respect to lithium mining impacts on locals.

Even though the officials and policy makers are hopeful of huge developmental change with this discovery, environmental activists maintain that India is not in a position to do environment-friendly lithium extraction from Jammu.

“India is far behind in terms of research and technology at world level,” said Roop Chand Makhnotra of the Nature-Human Centric Peoples Movement, a voluntary organisation working on social and environmental issues, based in Jammu. “If India would have deeper knowledge and technology, then the government would not have allowed deep drilling for dam constructions in Jammu and Kashmir, as the region comes under seismic zone-5. In this zone, fissure lines are now reactivated, which causes frequent trembling of the ground. This is just an example of how unhealthy technology we use.”

We have reached out to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change asking if an environmental impact study has been conducted in Reasi for the extraction of lithium, and about how the government is taking care of concerns of the local population. We will update this story when we receive a response.

Torch bearers of change

Mahatam Singh, the 55-year-old farmer, points towards a group of young boys who had recently attended a wedding in Jammu city, around 80 km away, and returned the previous night. “We love the air, freshness and the smell of trees around us so much that we don’t like to stay out of this place even for a single day,” he says. “Unlike in many other places, our young generation also wants to stay back and fight for their rights.”

Video: Snowfall in Salal. Courtesy: Ranbir Singh

Ranbir Singh, in his thirties, uses his mobile phone to show a video to those who visit Salal. The video is of snowfall which he had shot this winter. “After every three to four years, we witness a few inches of snowfall in Salal,” says Ranbir. “That is why we famously call this area a ‘Mini Kashmir.’ But now, we may lose everything.”

Ranbir says that the youngsters of Salal have joined hands to not allow the history of environmental degradation to repeat here. “We won't let the ghost of development swallow us. We will allow the exploration and extraction of lithium only after we are adequately compensated and rehabilitated.”

Update: We have updated the story with comments from the Ministry of New And Renewable Energy which were sent to us on June 27.

On July 3, we updated the story to reflect some changes to the comments by Parveen Kumar, Senior Programme Manager, Electric Mobility at World Resources Institute, India.

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