“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.”