The discovery of 5.9 million tonnes of lithium in Jammu & Kashmir’s Reasi district has undoubtedly created excitement in the country but it has also triggered a debate about the environmental fallout of mining in the ecologically sensitive Himalayas.
On February 9, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) claimed that lithium reserves have been found for the first time in the country, raising hopes that it can boost India’s energy transition, given how the country is heavily dependent on imports of the grey metal.
Lithium, also known as ‘white gold’, is a key component in batteries, electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy solutions. It has huge demand worldwide due to its usability and demand in the global energy market.
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In Reasi district’s Salal Kotli, where lithium was discovered recently, people expect the chemical element to change their fortunes through employment opportunities, upgradation of road infrastructure, and a boost to the local economy as mining commences. But the younger generation is also worried about the environmental hazards of mining, if indeed such an effort gets underway, as they fear it will affect the ecology of the area, which nestles by the Chenab River, amid tall trees and mountains.
Yukesh Thakur, an engineering student in Salal Kotli, said large-scale lithium extraction will lead to air pollution in the area. “We are living in a village surrounded by mountains, with the Chenab River flowing down. Compared to Reasi town, the temperature here does not exceed 27 degrees Celsius. But if mining takes place, followed by increasing vehicle movement in the area, the pollution levels can go up causing the climate to warm,” said Thakur, 27.
Reasi, being a hill district with deep gorges and ravines, has variable climatic conditions. Environmental experts say that any impact on the environment in Reasi district can disturb the ecology of its boundaries with Udhampur district in the south, Ramban in the east, Shopian district in the Kashmir Valley in the north and Rajouri in the west.
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Due to its fragile ecology, the Himalayan region is extremely vulnerable to the smallest perturbations in climate.
The experts, while raising environmental concerns of large-scale mining, warned that fiddling with the environment in the hills of Reasi could cause catastrophes. Uttarakhand, another Himalayan state, has been reeling from the effects of unchecked economic activities that have devastated the environment in the state and caused many fatalities.
Reasi has a total area of 1.5 lakh hectares with 38,783 hectares under cultivation and 67,498 hectares under forest cover. The Chenab River flows through the district and has tributaries Ans, Plassu, Banganga, Pai and Anji.
In a research paper titled ‘Threats of climatic changes to the people hailing from the hilly belt of district Reasi’ a local academician, Dr Prem Singh, has flagged environmental factors affecting Reasi, which is already facing the effects of climate change.
Reasi district’s mountains play a key role in supporting the economy and the population of 2.47 lakh, both directly and indirectly.
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“Any change in climate will reduce access to drinking water, affect the health of the poor, and will also pose a serious threat to food security in this belt. The agriculture in Reasi especially in the hilly belt is mainly dependent upon rainfall and confined to terraces confined out of hills slopes,” Singh wrote in the paper published in April 2018.
Singh also warned that climate change has reduced availability of water for irrigation, led to loss of soil, moisture, fertility, with extreme droughts and shifts in the rainfall pattern resulting in crop failures in the whole Reasi.
“The people of this belt are more vulnerable due to limited opportunities and choices, small land holdings and lack of access to markets within state districts and other states. The marginalised groups have limited reasons and capacity to adopt and are the most easily affected,” said Singh.
Jaswant Singh, a vegetable seller from Salal Kotli, said that since the area is earthquake prone, mining can make the village unsafe for living. “In case mining to extract lithium is done, the earth here may lose its base and even minor earthquakes may cause cracks on residential houses and buildings.”
During this reporter’s travels for the series of stories by Moneycontrol on the lithium discovery in Jammu, an earthquake of magnitude 3.6 struck Katra, 24 kilometres from Reasi in the early hours of February 17, according to India’s National Centre for Seismology. No casualties or damage to property were reported. Prior to this earthquake, 13 earthquakes were recorded in Reasi, Doda and the adjoining districts last August, raising fears of a major seismic event in the making.
On June 6, 2021, a low-intensity earthquake of 2.5 magnitude hit Reasi.
Vikram Thakur, a social activist from Doda district of Jammu, said that although the discovery of lithium is good news for India, extraction of important minerals will not only harm the environment but also displace people. “Lithium mining can contaminate water supplies in the area and people may get impure water to drink. Similarly, mining and blasting can also degrade air quality. Also, people who have been living in the area may be displaced from the native village since the area won’t remain feasible for living.”
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Experts added that lithium extraction is water intensive — to produce one ton of lithium, 2.2 million litres of water is needed and that causes numerous social and ecological problems.
Srinagar-based activist Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat said that the J&K region has fragile mountains due to which mining can invite environmental hazards. “The mountains in Jammu’s districts, including Reasi, Ramban, Udhampur, Doda and others, have excessive sand and soil because of which they are fragile. And mining in mountainous areas can have serious ramifications,” warned Bhat, founder & chairman of the J&K RTI movement.
For example, he said the soil in the Ramban-Banihal stretch is sedimentary, resulting in erosion and falling debris besides common landslides, hampering road widening on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway.
Interestingly, on February 19, 13 residential houses and a road stretch of 200 meters were damaged due to 'land erosion' at Gool in adjoining Ramban district.
Rich biodiversity on the line
The J&K region, which boasts of some of the richest geographical diversity in India, is known for scenic natural beauty because of the breath-taking splendour of its mountains, glaciers, meadows, lush valleys, water bodies and rich biodiversity wetlands.
Large-scale mining in J&K, which received 1.88 crore tourists in 2022, can adversely impact the ecology and environment of the region.
Dr Shashank Shekhar, professor, department of geology, Delhi University, told Moneycontrol that if the lithium site is to be mined eventually, then it will have to be determined if mining can be done in a sustainable manner. “As of now it is an inferred reserve. But if it truly proves to be a significant reserve that can be mined, then all due consideration for environmental concerns have to be taken care of before giving permission for mining. If the discovery is proven and the reserve is in a forest area then mining becomes difficult.”
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Shekhar added that when a discovery passes all the stages then responsible players who have good experience in mining can do it in an environment-friendly way, creating job opportunities for the locals.
However, advocate Nadeem Qadri, an environmental lawyer who practices in the J&K High Court, told Moneycontrol that it is too early to comment if lithium extraction would cause a threat to the environment in J&K. “Whenever mining is done the environment becomes the first casualty. But one cannot comment on the Reasi lithium site yet because the government has not released any report or guidelines on it so far,” said Qadri. “As of now everyone is celebrating the lithium discovery while its environmental impact assessment is yet to be done. For instance, can lithium mining impact the functioning of the Salal hydroelectric power project.”
The department of geology and mining denied reports that the lithium project would hit the ecology and environment of the region.
Speaking to Moneycontrol, Naveen Kumar, Reasi’s Assistant district mineral officer, asserted that there would be no threat to the environment from extraction of minerals in the district.