The second wave of the COVID-19, which peaked in April and May this year, was nothing less than devastating. Oxygen shortage, jam-packed hospitals, and crematoriums were made headlines triggering massive emotional distress. Amidst this period, one of the horrifying scenes was perhaps when dead bodies were seen floating on the country's holiest river Ganga.
In a bid to ensure that the poor cremate their loved ones with dignity, a firewood collection called 'Lakdi Bank' was started in April 2021, to provide round-the-clock assistance to people across 10 ghats in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh.
Started by social worker and entrepreneur Sanjay Rai Sherpuria, Lakdi Bank has 46 members and more than 5,000 volunteers who procure woods through various means of donations from all over the country and make it available to the needy. Be it offering financial aid to the poorest of the poor to perform last rites or taking care of the unclaimed bodies lying at river banks, the team is religiously helping people cremate the deceased.
Moving Towards Sustainability
With the initiative helping a large number of people, the team decided to switch the process to a sustainable model.
It creates pyre logs made from cow dung through a machine. It helps in reducing the cost of a funeral to a significant amount. Further, it saves the environment, protects non-lactating cows, and makes them a source of income for the families owning them.
Compared with 600 kilograms of wood, the new method will only require 120 kilograms of cow dung logs. It will also generate employment opportunities, save non-lactating cows from becoming obsolete in the district, and providing livelihood to the families owning them. Further, the new method will ensure saving trees and reduce the number of pollutants in the air and water.
"Earlier this year when pictures of bloated and decomposed bodies, suspected to be infected by COVID-19, were found floating in the rivers of Uttar Pradesh, I could not believe what I was witnessing. I was deeply hurt as in our Hindu culture, performing last rites is auspicious and paramount," Sherpuria told The Logical Indian.
"To fulfil this purpose, I shifted my base from Delhi to Uttar Pradesh and with the help of an expert team, local administration, and citizens, we started working towards it," he added.
Sherpuria said that the cost of wood for a single cremation went up from Rs 3000 to Rs 8000. Reportedly, on average, for a single cremation, one even paid Rs 12000. Owning to religious beliefs, the practice of dumping bodies is widespread in the state. Taking all these factors into consideration and being aware that more than seven crore people live below the national poverty line in the state, 'Lakdi Bank' came into existence.
Assistance During COVID Times
"Desperate times call for desperate measures and with our sincere efforts, we have indeed won the hearts of Ghazipur people. Every individual in the district knows us due to the support and assistance we provide in these unprecedented times," Sherpuria explained.
Knowing the importance of tracking, testing and treatment, a quick COVID-19 response centre was set up. Through a call centre operated by 70 people, his team responded to around 16,000 emergency calls. The team travelled to remote villages with the help of a Mobile Telemedicine Vehicle and ambulances to provide life-saving equipment and medicines to more than 53,000 people.
Taking a step forward, be it fulfilling the need for oxygen concentrators in hospitals, religious institutions and monasteries in the district to giving face shields, masks, medicines to government employees and journalists, they have helped each section of society. To save lives battling for breath, the venture has started working on setting up one Oxygen plant and six ventilators at Sardar Vora Bazar.
The Lakdi Bank functions mainly through people's participation and urges people to donate wood. "While people in rural areas have been generous enough to donate, we also request organisations with surplus wood to help in any manner they can," Sherpuria said.
Alongside procuring wood from the market, the bank also sources its wood with monetary donations, ranging from Rs 2 to Rs 100, from the local administration. Currently, it has more than 600 tonnes of wood in its stock.
"More and more people are reaching out to us to offer help in terms of donations. Be it people living in the villages, organisations in the district and the local administration, everybody is now a part of Lakdi Bank's success and has helped the team in their capacity," Sherpuria said. Through a collective effort, the team has been able to assist more than 10,000 families in cremating their loved ones across Ghazipur. Further, there is a growing inclination towards Lakdi Bank's sustainable and cost-effective method of making pyre logs from cow dung.
Generating Employment Opportunities
The social entrepreneur says the plan is to improve the lives and prospects of Ghazipur people by generating employment opportunities and making the district an investment destination. "We have taken the first step in this direction with the announcement of setting up an electric vehicle manufacturing plant in Ghazipur. The whole effort is to strengthen the rural economy and enhance the financial well-being of the people living in the villages. This, in a way, will contribute to the macroeconomy," he said.
To achieve the vision of a self-reliant economy and having identified the rural challenges, Lakdi Bank has also introduced steps to fight the unemployment rate in Uttar Pradesh. The Centre for Excellence under YREF, with its training programs in scientific farming, animal husbandry, poultry, etc., aims to provide direct and indirect employment to approximately 25,000 people every year through Mera Rozgar, a skill development eco-system of vocational training.