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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Mountain Village in the Path of India’s Electric Dreams

In the crowded bus climbing slowly toward the village of Salal, high in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir, a young man is squashed among the other passengers, clasping to his chest a plastic container filled with a gallon of petrol. Salal is home to 10,000 people, but like other remote areas of the Indian-administered territory, is poorly served by infrastructure and amenities. It has no proper medical infrastructure or institutes of higher education—or gas stations.

The village, whose main economy has been agriculture, now finds itself at the center of India’s push to build high-tech industries and transition away from fossil fuels. On February 9, the Indian government announced that the village was sitting on top of 5.9 million metric tons of lithium, a soft, white metal that is a core component of the batteries that power electric vehicles, phones, and computers. The discovery makes India the holder of the fifth-largest lithium reserves in the world, and offers the tantalizing prospect of self-sufficiency in a mineral that is critical to the tech sector.

Pritam Singh, the 55-year-old head of the village, says he “jumped with joy” when he read the headlines. Teenagers dug up small pieces of rock and ran around the village, and TV cameras descended on the area.

But the excitement that greeted the discovery has started to wear off, as the reality of what exploiting the lithium reserves will mean sinks in. Kashmir is one of the world’s most militarized regions, suffering from decades of armed insurgency by Islamist guerrillas who oppose India’s rule. In August 2019, the Indian government unilaterally revoked the region’s limited autonomy and imposed months-long curfews and communication blackouts. Locals have long protested against the exploitation of local resources. One militant group has already warned that it plans to attack any Indian companies who take on the lithium project, calling mining “the Colonial Exploitation and theft of resources of Jammu and Kashmir.”

For all of the euphoria in India’s commercial and political centers, people in Jammu and Kashmir worry that exploiting the country’s new mineral wealth will mean social strife and environmental destruction.

A week after the announcement, when WIRED visited Salal, the streets were almost deserted. People gathered in small groups to chat. “Are we going to be millionaires?” a man, wearing sandals and a loose shirt, asked. Another replied: “[The] government is not going to leave it at any cost … This is the end of petrol, diesel—and, perhaps, our [village].”

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Singh says he can see what’s coming next. “The village will be demarcated for further exploration and we will be relocated,” he says. “I think to damn with this lithium … We don’t even need money if they will spare our village now.”  

Salal's topography is alluring even by the standards of the picturesque valleys of Jammu and Kashmir. With snow-covered mountains in the north and green mountain ranges in the east and west, the village overlooks the Chenab River. Sheep graze in the green fields. “It’s our Switzerland,” said Rajesh Thakur, a 24-year-old student. “This climate is all I need. I can feel the aroma in the breeze.”

Tradition has it that the mountains are gods, ancestral deities that the Salalis, as locals are known, worship. The season’s first crop is dedicated to the gods. Upon birth, a child’s first sip comes from the Chenab River; upon death, Salalis’ ashes are immersed in its waters. “The climate’s energy flow passes through us,” says Shamsher Singh, a 72-year-old farmer and former village head. “We are only a small part of this ecosystem.”

When officials from India’s geological survey body came to explore for lithium in 2018, the villagers were apprehensive. “When they dug to collect samples, the villagers resisted, saying that it would ruin our land,” Shamsher Singh recalls. “But we were assured that nobody is going to take your land, it is just a survey for mineral exploration.”

Environmentalists warn that lithium extraction is often environmentally destructive, causing damage to soil, as well as air and water pollution. In Chile, local communities and mining companies have clashed over the damage to the landscape and contaminated water canals. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, lithium operations have contaminated local streams. In Upper Tibet’s Ganzizhou Rongda mine, toxic chemical leaks in 2016 destroyed the surrounding ecology completely and left thousands of fish dead.

Jammu and Kashmir’s ecology is already fragile, according to Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a Kashmir-based environmental activist. “The Chenab River flows through very fragile zones and I doubt if [the] Chenab will survive this,” he says. “Even if the government finds gold in these mountains, don’t extract. Nothing is more valuable than our lives.”

But for the Indian government, leaving the lithium in the ground isn’t an option. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country has been on a drive for self-sufficiency in a wide range of strategic products, from steel to electronics to military equipment. 

On India’s Independence Day last August, Modi announced that the country would seek self-reliance in energy, too. “From solar energy to Mission Hydrogen to adoption to EVs, we need to take these initiatives to the next level for energy independence,” he said.

EV sales in India jumped from under 50,000 to nearly 443,000 between 2020 and 2022, according to official figures. The Indian government estimates that 30 percent of sales of private cars, 70 percent of commercial vehicles, and 80 percent of two- and three-wheelers will be EVs by 2030. Moving to electric would help reduce India’s oil imports and help it meet its carbon emissions targets.

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Manufacturing the batteries to power the move to EVs would require huge quantities of lithium. India imports most of its lithium and lithium-ion from China, despite a tense relationship between the two countries. If the discovery in Salal is as large as the government projections say it is, it could provide enough lithium to electrify every private vehicle in India, according to the investment bank Jefferies.

The lithium deposit has the potential to solve two of India’s most intractable problems, says Puneet Gupta, an electric mobility expert and director at rating agency S&P: “Pollution and energy security.”

“The government is really obsessed with electrifying India. And that’s rooted in its net-zero targets. If you see the direction, that’s very, very clear,” he says. “Every private investor and company is supporting the ‘EV revolution.’”

For self-sufficiency in energy, the country needs to do more than just generate energy using its own resources, he says. “The entire supply chain needs to be local to be self-sufficient, not one or two parts of it.”

However, the size of the deposit in Jammu and Kashmir doesn’t necessarily mean that the country can achieve self-reliance in an economically and environmentally sustainable way. “Even if we are able to extract lithium at the cost of the environment, will we be able to exploit it at a good price?” Gupta says. “Maybe, in the end, it would be cheaper to import. We are yet to find these answers.”

Opening up the lithium reserves in Jammu and Kashmir is also likely to create new tensions in an area that has been a flashpoint for conflicts for half a century. India and Pakistan have fought three wars—in 1965, 1971, and 1999—over the region. 

India and Pakistan are party to a treaty that dictates how water from six rivers that flow between them should be shared, and experts say that any environmental damage caused by large-scale lithium mining could lead to disputes.

“The forested areas will become unforested and they will leave behind a very scarred landscape. Not a good thought,” says Sidiq Wahid, a historian and former chancellor of Kashmir’s Islamic University of Science and Technology. “We know it is going to deprive the region of water, in a big way.”

“Water has been a contested political issue [in Kashmir],” Wahid adds. “It will play out to the detriment of the companies that exploit the water.

Many people in Jammu and Kashmir also fear that there won’t be a tradeoff for them—that the benefits will flow to the rest of India, leaving them to deal with the social tensions and environmental destruction.

“The EVs will run in Delhi and Bengaluru,” Bhat, the activist, says. “And the locals will be uprooted.”

In Salal, Shamsher Singh says that he’s seen this play out before. A hydropower dam that was built in the region in the 1980s generates 690 MW of power, which is mostly sent on into northern India. Salal, meanwhile, has daily power cuts. “Our village was uneducated at that time and our children later taught us that we were betrayed,” says Singh, who was among the laborers who constructed the project. “But if [the lithium mine] comes again at the cost of our lives, we won’t let the government move an inch this time.”

On the day WIRED visited in late February, more than 200 villagers gathered to discuss the discovery. Everyone in the room looked at each other quietly, worried not just about the immediate dangers, but about their place in posterity.

“This village isn’t 10 or 20 years old. These mountains have been here for centuries,” said 63-year-old Karan Sharma. “Our ancestors stitched this village together for more than 200 years.”

“Our children will not come of age in our culture, our beautiful Salal,” he said. “Where will I take them? There will be no trace of our culture here.”

Shamsher Singh summed up the feeling of being a helpless spectator to the future. “Delhi ki qismat chamak gayi, aur humare lag gaye,” he lamented—loosely translated as “Delhi’s destiny shone bright while our hopes were dashed.”

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