India’s exclusion from US-led critical minerals alliance indicates lack of expertise and should prompt remedial action
An ambitious new economic alliance, formalized in June, would cause unease among policymakers in New Delhi. Aimed at reducing member countries’ reliance on China for supplies of cobalt, nickel, lithium and the 17 rare earth minerals, the US-led Minerals Security Partnership includes Canada, Australia, Finland, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, United Kingdom and European Commission. The Union Finance Ministry has reportedly sought the help of the External Affairs Ministry to find a place for India in the new alliance. The government’s concern is not misplaced. Critical minerals are essential components of several modern devices, including smartphones and computers. They are building blocks of green technologies like solar panels and wind turbines and are essential for the transition to battery-electric cars. The International Energy Agency expects demand for some of these minerals, such as lithium, to grow more than 40-fold over the next two decades. This is likely to intensify competition in the field.
China not only dominates supplies, it also has a nearly 25-year lead over other countries in developing the skills needed to explore and process critical minerals. In recent times, Europe has realized the need to train mining engineering talent and has taken steps to fill the skills gap. In February, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, headquartered in Budapest, launched a Battery Alliance Academy that will train 8 lakh workers by 2025 for the European battery industry. Japanese companies have made progress in developing treatment technologies. Policy makers in other countries have started conversations to meet the needs of the new knowledge economy. Last month, the Australian Resources and Energy Employer Association released a report estimating the industry’s labor gap. In several countries, including the United States, there is talk of short-term collaborations with China – notwithstanding the new alliance. India has, on the whole, stayed away from these initiatives. The country’s skills development program does nothing to build expertise in this emerging field. Industry watchers believe that this shortfall is a significant reason for the country’s exclusion from the US-led partnership.
In the coming years, India’s ambitious renewable energy program and its other decarbonization initiatives like the push towards electric vehicles will place demands on human resources. The country’s IITs and several other institutes offer specialization in mineral technologies. These courses need to be improved and several new initiates to meet the challenges of the new knowledge economy.