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“In death, this town searches for new life” by KumKum Dasgupta

By KumKum Dasgupta, Hindustan Times

June 4, 2010

Anshul Garg faces a big challenge this month. He will have to convince the ‘Dom Raja’ of Varanasi — whose family has been controlling the cremation rituals at the ghats for centuries — to give up the conventional wood pyre system and allow him, an outsider, to install an eco-friendly cremation system.

Every time a body is cremated in India, 400 to 500 kg of wood is burnt. Ten million people die in India every year and about 84 per cent are cremated. This ritual eats up 50 to 60 million trees and deforests about 1,500 to 2,000 sq km land. Burning this much wood emits about 8.07 million tonnes of CO2, a greenhouse gas, annually.

“The Dom community did not allow even allow the government to set up electric crematoriums there,” says Garg, an executive officer at Mokshda, a Delhi-based non-profit group that is campaigning for an environmentally friendly approach to cremation. “They fear losing control.”

Obstacles, however, are not new for Garg and his team.

Every time they have tried to install their eco-friendly Mokshda Green Cremation System, various interest groups — from pandits to politicians — have opposed it, claiming the system does not conform to the Hindu cremation rules.

“Even for many bureaucrats, death is a no-discussion area,” says Garg while explaining the functioning of a Mokshda system he had installed at Shantidham in Vikasnagar, 40 km from Dehradun.

Cremations are also big business for the wood traders (the “mafia”, according to Garg), and Mokshda employees often get death threats since the system cuts down massively on the requirement of wood and, therefore, the costs.

The Mokshda system comprises a man-sized metal grate beneath a roof and chimney.

The wood is placed on the metal grate, instead of the ground, and this allows better air circulation. Unlike the conventional pyre, the system manages to down on wood thanks to improved combustion efficiency thanks to increased airflow.

The advantages are multiple: only 100 kg of wood is required as against 400 kg in the conventional system.

Mokshda takes about two hours to burn a body, and the system can be reused after six hours.

In contrast, the old wood pyre system takes about six hours and can be only used after three days. The first month after the system was installed in Vikasnagar in 2008, there were no takers. Today, 70 per cent of cremations happen in this system.

The environment ministry and local municipal bodies in collaboration with United Nations Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility have approved the installation of 60 units in 10 cities.

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Genre: Environmental Issues Articles, Varanasi Articles
Subjects: Environmental Issues, Varanasi