Sanjay Rai Sherpuria handing out free firewood from Lakdi Bank, which he set up to help people in need perform the last rites of their family membersS
anjay Rai Sherpuria, a 50-year-old social entrepreneur was in Delhi when he saw images of corpses, suspected to be infected by Covid-19, floating in the rivers of North India, or buried along their banks. He immediately shifted base to Uttar Pradesh, which was not only severely affected by the second Covid-19 wave, but also one through which many important rivers, including the Ganga, flow. He set up a Lakdi (firewood) Bank to help the poor and marginalised perform the last rites of their family members with dignity.
According to media reports, more than 2,000 bodies have been pulled out from rivers in UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh over the past two months.
“Every person, irrespective of their caste, class, colour or creed, has to be treated respectfully, even in death,” says Sherpuria. “Although the bank aims to make cremation accessible to all, as an environmentally responsible citizen it is also my duty to keep the rivers clean and care about life underwater.”
With help from the district administration, 10 firewood banks have been set up across 10 ghats (piers) in UP’s Ghazipur district. A team, comprising 46 people and more than 5,000 volunteers, provides round-the-clock assistance to people approaching them for help with cremations.
It was important to set up the bank for a number of reasons, says Sherpuria: “First, the poor cannot afford the cost of cremations. Second, families have spent a lot of money on treatments, leaving them with very few resources; and third, the cost of firewood has been hiked in many places."
Although the Lakdi Bank aims to help everyone, it also ensures that firewood is reserved for those in need. “We call the village sarpanch to check the person’s financial status, and it is on their reference that we provide the wood, free of cost,” says Sherpuria. Each ghat also has a team of five people to oversee the process, and help prevent chaos and confusion.
The Lakdi Bank has been set up across 10 ghats (piers) in UP's Ghazipur district. More than 5,000 volunteers work round-the-clock to help locals with the cremation process
While some farmers in the district are generous enough to donate wood, the team also buys wood with monetary donations from the administration, and requests organisations and people who have leftovers to send it to them. They now have a bank of about 600 tonne.
However, in the future, Sherpuria wants to create a more sustainable model, towards which he has begun work. “I’ve created a machine to make cow dung-based wood, which has many benefits. It will prevent us from cutting more trees, and also help villagers earn money in return for the cow dung they provide us with. It will also prevent them from abandoning the cows once they stop producing milk,” he says.
But, most importantly, it will cut the cost of cremation to a large extent, feels Sherpuria. “With normal wood, one needs about 500 kg to 600 kg. A cremation process with this alternative won’t require more than 120 kg,” he says. “If successful, I will submit the plan to NITI Aayog for crematoria across the country to adapt this method.”
Sherpuria’s efforts are not limited to the Lakdi Bank. He has also set up a quick Covid-19 response centre In Ghazipur to help villagers access resources for treatment. Through a call centre manned by 70 people working round-the-clock, it has so far responded to 16,000 calls and emergencies. It also has a team that goes to every village in Ghazipur district to conduct Covid-19 tests, provide medicines and raise awareness.
“We got 69 NGOs working in the district to join hands with us and through everyone’s efforts, the situation is much better than before,” he says. “Helping us in a crisis is not the government’s duty alone. By involving citizens and locals, I want to make them aware of their responsibility towards society.”
This work, although very rewarding, has taken a toll on Sherpuria's mental and physical health. “With all the horrible things I’ve seen, I haven’t been able to sleep properly in more than 50 nights,” he says. With his day starting at 6 am and ending past midnight, he hasn’t been able to eat on time or exercise. But it helps that his wife, Kanchan Rai, a mental and emotional wellbeing coach, has guided him to deal with the highs and the lows. “She has helped me when I've been at my worst, and I can do whatever I am because I have her support,” he says.