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India's poor set eyes on green cremations

Jul 14, 2010

Green cremation emerges as an alternative to elaborate and costly death rituals in India. Traditional cremation undertakers, state and international cooperation programmes are pushing it as an option to reduce the country’s carbon footprint and avoid expensive cremations.

New Delhi: Unmindful of the monsoons lashing the Dehradun area in the Himalayan foothills in northern India, Girdhari Singh returns from work daily with a headload of wood that he finds along the road, and stacks it to dry in the cattleshed.

Knowing that his ailing mother could die any time soon, the 53-year-old shepherd needs half a tonne of wood – which would cost him around 40 US dollars if he were to buy it – for her funeral pyre.

"Four million tonnes of wood or 50 million trees are used annually for traditional cremations in India"

He wishes he could take his mother, when she dies, to one of the ‘green’ crematoriums he has heard about, which use just a third-or 150 to 200 kilogrammes-of fuelwood that traditional pyres require.

But Vikasnagar, the nearest town that has one of India’s eco-friendly cremation facilities, is 40 kilometres away from his home in Uttarakhand state.

Still, such facilities would be a boon not only to the poor like Girdhari, who often run into debt after holding elaborate death rituals for their departed loved ones. They would also help India’s forests, which are under severe pressure from its rapidly growing population of 1.1 billion people.

Four million tonnes of wood or 50 million trees are used annually for traditional cremations in India, deforesting up to 2,000 square kilometres, says the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Development Programme. These rituals also emit eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide, which are among the greenhouse gases that add to global warming.

Based on UN data, 84% of an estimated 10 million people who die in India yearly are Hindus, who believe that the dead must be cremated, not buried.

Integral to Hindu cremation rites is the use of wood, seen as a symbolic connection between body and earth.

In the traditional, wood-intensive cremation process, layers of wood are piled a metre high on the ground. The open-air funeral pyre burns for around six hours. It takes another three hours for the ashes to cool, after which a handful of burnt bones and ashes are collected to be immersed later in the Ganges river, considered the holiest river in India. This final act completes the death rites.

Developed in 1992 by a New Delhi-based non-profit environmental group called Mokshda-which in Hindi means ‘that which provides salvation’ -- the green cremation system uses a simple heat-retaining and combustion- efficient technology, explains technical consultant Parkash Chand Tandon, a retired government civil engineer who helps build green crematoriums.

The Mokshda crematorium is a high-grade, stainless steel and man-sized bier with a hood and sidewall slates that can withstand temperatures of up to 800 degrees Celsius.

Its thermal and shock-resistant steel structure makes it easy to wash once cremation is completed and is ready to be used again just 30 minutes later, explains 35-year-old Satyajit Srivastav, who supervises the Mokshda utility at Pratap Nagar cemetery in Jogeshwari, located in Mumbai city. A traditional pyre cools in three hours, or six times longer than the Mokshda facility.

Anshul Garg, Mokshda’s director, recounts that government and environmentalists’ efforts since the 1960s to promote electric cremations, which eschew the use of wood and produce no smoke, "have not really caught on for religious reasons." This prompted them to turn to another alternative that is "eco-friendly and satisfies religious and social sentiments," he says.

Indeed, many find the use of electric and gas-based cremation impersonal and expensive, saying they take out the most important ritual in the traditional cremation process – lighting the funeral pyre fire from the mouth of the dead, which is believed to be a significant rite for the soul’s salvation.

Still, time, some families may now be more willing to try out alternative methods of laying their kin to rest.

Satendar Singh, a petty trader at Pratap Nagar in Mumbai, says the cleanliness of the green cremation method and "absence of long waiting" prompted his family to go for it when his uncle died in June.

A total of 42 Mokshda systems are already up and running in six Indian states, although a few are in a state of disrepair due to neglect by local managements, says Garg.

State and international cooperation programmes are also underway to push the green cremation alternative, fitting into environment policies designed to reduce this South Asian country’s carbon footprint.

India’s federal Ministry of Environment and Forests has been supporting Mokshda over the last 18 years.

In 2008, GEF provided 975,000 dollars, and UNDP two million dollars, for the installation of 60 alternative cremation facilities in 10 Indian cities by 2012. Mokshda crematorium facilities cost anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 dollars to build, says Garg.

"This is a huge positive (step) for our eco-friendly system"

Under pressure to reduce India’s carbon footprint-it produces more than two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, coming in third after China and the United States -- the state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp has pledged to foot the two million-dollar construction of 30 Mokshda crematoriums in eight other Indian cities starting in August. These include the capital, New Delhi.

Elsewhere in India, Varanasi municipality in northern Uttar Pradesh state has agreed in principle to shift to the Mokshda cremation system. The town’s cremation ground is considered the holiest and hence most orthodox for India’s Hindus. Traditional cremation undertakers, called the Dom community, have given Mokshda the nod. "This is a huge positive (step) for our eco-friendly system," says Garg.

"We are seeing positive traction because the awareness of environment is increasing," he explains, adding that "wood prices, too, can only move up."

Source : IPS
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