Anew and ambitious economic alliance, formalised in June, is reportedly causing unease amongst policymakers in New Delhi. Intended to reduce the dependence of the member nations on China for supplies of cobalt, nickel, lithium and the 17 rare earth minerals, the US-led group, Minerals Security Partnership, includes Canada, Australia, Finland, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, the UK and the European Commission. The Union Finance Ministry has reportedly sought the Ministry of External Affairs’ help to find a place for India in the new alliance. The government’s concern isn’t misplaced. Critical minerals are essential components of several modern-day appliances, including smartphones and computers. They are building blocks of green technologies like solar panels and wind turbines and are indispensable for the transition to electric battery-driven cars. The International Energy Agency expects the demand for some of these minerals, such as lithium, to grow more than 40 times in the next two decades. This is likely to intensify the competition in the field.
China doesn’t just dominate supplies, it also has a head start of close to 25 years over other countries in developing the skills required for exploring and processing critical minerals. In recent times, Europe has woken up to the need to train mining engineering talent and taken steps to address skill gaps. In February, the Budapest-headquartered European Institute of Innovation and Technology launched a Battery Alliance Academy that will train 8 lakh workers by 2025 for the EU’s battery industry. Japanese corporations have made some headway in developing processing technologies. Policymakers in other countries have begun conversations to address the needs of the new knowledge economy. Last month, the Australian Resources and Energy Employer Association published a report estimating the industry’s workforce deficit. In several countries, including the US, there is talk of short-term collaborations with China — the new alliance notwithstanding. India has, by and large, remained an outlier to such initiatives. The country’s skill development programme has nothing by way of building expertise in this emerging field. Industry watchers believe this deficit is an important reason for the country’s exclusion from the US-led partnership.
In the coming years, India’s ambitious renewable energy programme and its other decarbonising initiatives like the thrust towards electric vehicles will place human resource demands. The country’s IITs and several other institutes do offer specialisation in mineral technologies. Such courses have to be upgraded, and several new ones initiated, to meet the challenges of the new knowledge economy.