On Feb. 9, India’s government announced a discovery with massive implications for its environment, international relations, and political scene: an untapped 5.9 million-ton stash of lithium reserves located within the region of Jammu and Kashmir. The nonferrous metal has never been more important to global commerce and the climate-change fight, as a key material for the lithium-ion batteries used most often in electric cars and for storing energy from renewable power generators like solar and wind. Now India is preparing to extract and refine the stuff, begin lithium auctions to private actors by this summer, reduce its dependence on mineral imports from other countries, accelerate the development of the country’s flagging electric vehicle sector, and enjoy a newly opened pathway for India to meet its internal clean-tech and clean-energy goals.
An executive for a battery company told Indian outlet the Print that “this will have a huge impact on the cost of batteries and make EVs more affordable for consumers.” The managing director of the “alternative fuel” provider Greenfuel Energy Solutions stated that “India’s plan to increase EV penetration by 30 percent by 2030 relies heavily on lithium,” which means the lithium reserves have great potential for “creating jobs” and “generating revenue.” One government secretary likewise called the minerals stash a “game-changer in the economic development of Jammu and the country.”
And we are, indeed, talking about a lot of lithium. Alone, the Jammu and Kashmir reserves dwarf the amounts of lithium held by most nations; coupled with tinier stashes of lithium uncovered years ago in the state of Karnataka, they appear to herald a domestic bounty of a core material for high-in-demand energy-storage and electric-vehicle batteries. The subcontinent—which formerly purchased up to 80 percent of its lithium from countries like China and Taiwan and Argentina and Australia—could become its own bountiful lithium supplier.
What could possibly make all of this not good news? Look again where those lithium deposits lie.
Jammu and Kashmir is the world’s most militarized region and a longtime victim of India’s ugliest political disputes. From midcentury onward, after India and Pakistan claimed their respective territories from the British Empire, the two nations have fought over full control of the area; as India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir was granted special autonomy, though never offered the right to full self-determination. By the 1980s and ’90s, increasing dissension within the India-administered portion of the state, timed with an influx of mujahedeen-trained and -linked rebels into Pakistan following the Soviet-Afghan War, ignited an explosion of violence within the area. Armed groups fighting for the state’s full annexation by Pakistan or for wholesale independence were countered by India’s military, which imposed sweeping crackdowns across the region. This escalated when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government unilaterally revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in 2019, allowing for greater levels of outside influence in the territory, along with heightened levels of protest suppression.
It is against this backdrop, then, that the lithium discovery must be considered. Jammu and Kashmir’s situation has only worsened since its fateful disempowerment nearly four years ago: India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has consolidated electoral control, displaced business owners from the region, ravaged the territory’s economy, detained independent journalists from the area, and imposed record numbers of internet shutdowns. All this, as the region gets ready to host important elections in the near future. In a striking coincidence, a former government minister published an essay warning that “all is not well in Jammu and Kashmir” on the very same day the union territory’s lithium troves were revealed.
What do Jammu and Kashmir residents think about the lithium? Some are reportedly excited, heartened by government proclamations that youth workers will be prioritized for mining and refinement jobs, that this development initiative will revitalize the local economy, and that citizens who may be “affected” by the work—the land digging, the infrastructure construction, the potential natural impacts—will be “adequately compensated and rehabilitated.”
Not everyone is so bullish. Other young villagers in Reasi, the lush Jammu district where the lithium was found, told the financial outlet Moneycontrol that they worry about the destructive potential of large-scale lithium mining on the glacier-packed Himalayan mountain ranges, soil, trees, farms, water supplies, air quality, and hydroelectricity plants located in and around the Salal-Haimana area. (Like much of the rest of India, Reasi has been battered by the effects of climate change, suffering from frequent earthquakes and droughts and erosion.) More residents told the publication that the introduction of miners and machines could lead to government land grabs on developers’ behalf, thus displacing the population. Many have brought these concerns to government officials, additionally voicing fears that security needs for mineral operations will install even more Indian troops in the region. Then there are those who eschew civil engagement: A Pakistani-origin militant group issued a public statement just days after the lithium discovery, warning against “Colonial Exploitation and theft of resources” and threatening to “attack Indian Companies that dare to venture into the troubled waters of Jammu and Kashmir.” The long years of terrorist attacks and crackdowns have already torched much of Kashmir’s environmental beauty.
It’s not just that the lithium rush could escalate local unrest and plunder, but that it might not even be worth the trouble. The Geological Survey of India, which brought public attention to the lithium, classified the “inferred” deposits at a “G3” level—meaning that researchers are still at the “preliminary exploration” phase and have yet to firm up important specifics. These entail whether the minerals actually are of high enough quality for use in commercial manufacturing, how many years it will take to extract and prepare the lithium, or whether there even will be 5.9 million tons of minable and usable reserves in total once the processes are complete. As some Indian newspapers pointed out, the potential for lithium availability within Jammu and Kashmir had been sussed out nearly 25 years ago, and it’s taken all that time for the reserves to be officially upgraded from G4 status (reconnaissance) to G3 (preliminary exploration); there are two more levels to go before any actual lithium can be surfaced. This does not inspire confidence in a quick and easy process.
The Jammu and Kashmir deposits have been widely celebrated as a deus ex machina for India’s flagging climate-protection hopes. It could well be the case, however, that the nation’s lithium bounty fuels the same type of fraught conflicts over environmental justice, labor standards, property rights, and government stability that wrack other lithium-rich countries like Bolivia, Mexico, and Chile, not to mention even smaller jurisdictions like sacred lands historically expropriated from Native Americans. Lithium exploration around the world was fraught, violent, and exploitative even before the modern green-tech boom. The deposit in Jammu and Kashmir could change India’s future, but it could also lead the nation to repeat other countries’ pasts.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.