The much-celebrated announcement by the Geological Survey of India (GSI) this week that it has found huge lithium deposits in Jammu and Kashmir may have come more than two decades sooner had it not been for what appears to be a lethal dose of inertia and oversight.
Almost 26 years ago, the GSI submitted a detailed report about the presence of lithium in the same area, in the union territory's Salal. But there seems to have been no meaningful follow-up until now.
"Geological Survey of India, for the first time, established Lithium inferred resources (G3) of 5.9 million tonnes in the Salal-Haimana area of the Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir," a statement from the Ministry of Mines said on Tuesday.
"Inferred" refers to the lowest of three levels of confidence in the estimation of a mineral deposit, behind "indicated" and "measured".
Like the previous findings in 1995-97, the latest find by GSI is also preliminary. Officials admit that exploration and findings are based on the previous work of the organisation.
A 1997 report by the GSI said, "In view of the persistent lithium values and presence of widespread bauxite column (palaeoplanar surface) at a number of places, the prospect for lithium appears to be quite promising."
But there was no effort to take the exploration forward, sources said. The recent announcement by the GSI has reiterated the lithium find and the quantity - which may well be the world's seventh-largest deposit of the rare element.
Experts, however, caution that it is too early to celebrate. According to the United Nations Framework Classification for mineral resources, there are four stages of exploration. The GSI's findings are in the second tier at present, with two more levels left.
As of now, India does not have the technology to excavate and process lithium. Mines Secretary Vivek Bhardawaj said once the deposits are auctioned off by the Jammu and Kashmir administration, private players will start the process to excavate the mineral.
"It's a big thing for India. We are focusing on critical minerals because that's where the future is," said Vivek Bharadawaj, Mines Secretary, Government of India.
He said the geological report has been handed over to the Jammu and Kashmir administration, and it will be up to it to take the next step.
"Now it's for them to go ahead and auction it. And once the private party will come up, they will start the entire process and excavate the mineral," said Mr Bhardawaj.
The discovery could potentially put India on the map as one of the world's major lithium mines, as approximately 50 per cent of the world's lithium deposits are found in three South American countries: Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile.
The finding may end India's dependence on imports for light metals and aid the country's ambitious plan of switching to electric vehicles, besides boosting other key sectors such as medical infrastructure.
Experts say besides batteries, mobile phones, laptops, and digital cameras, lithium is used also for the treatment of bipolar disorders.
In Salal, locals are hopeful that the discovery may turn the fortunes of the village. Many villagers are seen carrying rocks and displaying them as a huge asset that may end unemployment in the area.
"These are not ordinary stones. They will turn the fortunes of the village. These stones will change the destiny of Reasi," said a villager.
Here is the report of the Geological Survey of India from 1997: