India makes a play to source rare earths – systematic scrapping of its old cars

Doesn't hurt that taking clunkers off the road will address India's other health emergency: foul air in Delhi


India has come up with a novel way of getting its hands on some rare earths – by junking cars.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi last Friday announced a Vehicle Scrappage Policy that aims to get junkers off Indian roads, with reducing pollution the main aim of the new effort.

Pollution is a major issue in India. In November 2019 air in its capital city Delhi became so dirty that a public health emergency was declared, and residents were told not to exercise outdoors, and schools were asked to curtail all outdoor activities. The nation also aspires to become a hub for the automotive industry.

The Scrappage Policy should go some way towards addressing pollution and boost domestic demand for new cars – and investment in the factories to make them.

But Modi also has rare earths in mind. Rare earths are essential in the manufacture of electronics, but China dominates supply. Miners everywhere are working to find new sources as fast as they are able, but demand remains high.

Enter India's fleet of junkers which, as Modi noted in his speech introducing the new Scrappage Policy, contain rare earths that can be recycled.

"When these rare earth metals that drive technology and that are available today will become rare, it is difficult to say," Modi lamented. The new policy, he added, will bring scientific rigour to India's metal recycling efforts.

"We had to import scrap steel worth about Rs23,000 crore ($3.01B) in the last year alone, because the scrapping in India till now is not productive. Energy recovery is almost negligible, high-strength steel alloys are not fully valued, and precious metals cannot be recovered.

"Now when there is scientific and technology-based scrapping, we will be able to recover even rare earth metals."

If India can pull this off, it could also benefit the high-tech manufacturers the nation hopes to attract to its shores.

Modi mentioned the city of Alang as a likely location to benefit from the Scrappage policy, as it is already a major centre for ship-breaking and steel recycling. However, that industry is also notorious for lax environmental practices and worse industrial safety measures.

The PM's speech included a pledge that "India is committed to providing its citizens with global standards in terms of safety and quality". But those words were spoken in the context of transport services – not the means used to deliver them. ®

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