Commander Subhasish Sarangi Writes :
Secure, reliable, and sustainable access to natural resources is an important aspect of national security. While access to oil and gas is crucial for traditional energy security, access to minerals is crucial for manufacturing industries. Of course, there are resources like coal that can be put in either category. For ease of explanation, the access to minerals can be explained by broadly classifying them into three categories. The first are minerals like iron ore, bauxite, copper, and zinc that are used in numerous traditional manufacturing industries. The second are Rare Earth Elements (REEs) used in numerous industries. The third are minerals required for new-age industries keeping transitions for the future in mind.
While the issues regarding the first category are well-known, missteps occur. Within two years since 2018, India shifted from being a net exporter of Copper to becoming a net importer largely due to the closure of a copper smelter plant at Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu since May 2018.
REEs are 17 elements in the Periodic Table of elements that include 15 lanthanides, yttrium, and scandium. They are further sub-divided into Heavy and Light REEs. Though referred as one group, the elements have varied properties that makes them critical in manufacturing of a wide array of products that include smart phones, rechargeable batteries, solar panels, cameras, LCD and plasma screens, magnets, missile guidance systems, pharmaceuticals and energy-efficient bulbs to name a few. Most applications require small amounts of elements and, since they do not degrade, they can be recycled when the equipment is disposed. Although China possesses only about a third of proven reserves of REEs, it dominates the global supply of refined REEs. It provides more than 98 percent of global supply of some elements and close to 90 percent of the world’s permanent magnet alloys.
India has about 6 percent of global RRE reserves. Much of this is in coastal sands that have large reserves of monazite. India established the Indian Rare Earths Ltd (IREL) in 1950 for refining of REEs. In 1963, IREL was nationalised and brought under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) of India. Its product portfolio includes certain rare earths and heavy minerals like ilmenite, rutile, zircon, monazite, leucoxene, sillimanite, and garnet. In 2009, IREL set up a joint venture called Toyotsu Rare Earths India (TREI) with Japan’s Toyota Tsusho Corporation. Mixed rare earth chloride is provided by IREL for TREI to extract neodymium, cilium, lanthanum, and praseodymium in its plant in Andhra Pradesh. The contract for supply was concluded in December 2015 and production commenced in February 2016. IREL (India) Limited also has plans for production of permanent magnets.
The “Strategic minerals” to be given priority have been listed in successive reports of the Working Group on Mineral Exploration and Development (other than Coal and Lignite) of the erstwhile Planning Commission. The 2011 report for the 12th Five Year Plan has a separate chapter devoted to strategic minerals and provides specific recommendations. The National Mineral Exploration Policy (NMEP) released by the Ministry of Mines in 2016 has also noted that strategic minerals vital for national security are given requisite priority in exploration. The Geological Survey of India (GSI), Mineral Exploration Corporation Limited (MECL) and Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD) are three of the organisations that undertake exploration for minerals in India. In July 2016, the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) released a report commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The study identified 49 non-fuel minerals that are most important for the manufacturing sector till the year 2030. It classified the supply risk of these 49 minerals, based on their importance and availability, into four categories. It identified 12 minerals (if REEs are taken as one category) in the most critical category of high economic importance and high supply risk. Since India is dependent on imports of more than half of these minerals, it recommended concluding agreements with the nations possessing these mineral reserves or acquiring mining rights. These include REEs, rhenium, beryllium, germanium, graphite, tantalum, zirconium, chromium, lithium, and strontium.
In August 2019, the Khanij Bidesh India Ltd (KABIL) was set up. It is a Joint Venture of three Public Sector units (PSUs) – National Aluminium Company (NALCO), Hindustan Copper Limited (HCL) and Mineral Exploration Corporation Ltd (MECL). Its objective is to undertake identification, acquisition, exploration, development, mining, and processing of strategic minerals overseas for commercial use and for meeting the country’s requirement of these minerals. These strategic minerals include cobalt, lithium, germanium, gallium, indium, beryllium, niobium, tantalum, tungsten, bismuth, and selenium. The initial focus will be on lithium and cobalt. This is primarily to cater for electric vehicle mobility and energy storage through batteries. India has a target of 170 GW of renewable energy by 2022. The National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP) has a target of 30 percent vehicles to be electric by 2030. Delegations of KABIL have visited Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, the nations of the ‘Lithium Triangle’., India and Bolivia have now agreed to facilitate supplies of Lithium Carbonate from Bolivia to India, and foster joint ventures for Lithium battery manufacture in India.
On 04 June 2020, India and Australia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on cooperation in the field of mining and processing of critical and strategic minerals. The MoU identifies specific areas where Australia and India will work together to meet the raw material demands of the future economy. Australia is among the top three producers of cobalt and zircon. It can also supply antimony, lithium, REEs, and tantalum.
The list of strategic materials is not static and changes with adoption of technology. If India intends to become self-reliant, it is critical that these initiatives to acquire secure, reliable, and sustainable access to natural resources reach their logical destination.
 Stratfor, The Geopolitics of Rare Earth Elements, 08 April 2019.
 Stratfor, The Geopolitics of Rare Earth Elements, 08 April 2019.
 Yamuna Singh, Rare Earth Element Resources: Indian Context, (Springer, 2020), p. 10.
 Rahul Nath Chodhury, The Production of Rare Earths: Why India Failed?, South Asia Journal, 05 December 2019.
 Toyota Tsusho Corporation, Toyota Tsusho Inks Rare Earths Contract with Indian State Corporation, Press Release, 10 December 2015.
 Yamuna Singh, Rare Earth Element Resources: Indian Context, (Springer, 2020), p. 388.
 Planning Commission, Report of Working Group on Mineral Exploration and Development (Other Than Coal & Lignite) for the XII Five Year Plan (2012-17), 2011.
 Ministry of Mines, GoI, National Mineral Exploration Policy (Non-Fuel And Non-Coal Minerals), 2016.
 Vaibhav Gupta, Tirtha Biswas, and Karthik Ganesan, Critical Non-Fuel Mineral Resources for India’s Manufacturing Sector: A Vision for 2030, CEEW, July 2016.
 Hindustan Copper Limited, Press Release, 01 August 2019.
 Ministry Of External Affairs (MEA), India-Bolivia Relations, September 2019 from
https://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/India_Bolivia_Relations_Sept_2019.pdf accessed on 05 September 2020.
 Ministry Of External Affairs (MEA), India-Argentina Joint Statement during State Visit of President of Argentina to India (February 17-19, 2019),18 February 2019.
 Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), India-Bolivia Joint Statement during State Visit of President to Bolivia (28-30 March 2019), 30 March 2019.
 Australia and India sign critical minerals agreement, accessed from https://www.minister.industry.gov.au/ministers/pitt/media-releases/australia-and-india-sign-critical-minerals-agreement on 06 September 2020.
Commander Subhasish Sarangi is a Research Fellow at United Service Institution of India (USI), New Delhi, working on a project “Maritime Corridors in the Indo-Pacific: Geo-political Implications for India”. He has post graduate degrees in Signal Processing and International Relations. His research interests include international relations, maritime security, and cyber security.
Article uploaded on : 07-09-2020
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.