Published: 19th June 2021
How this entrepreneur set up firewood banks in UP to help the poor perform last rites for their dead kin
With help of local government bodies, a total of 10 firewood banks have been set up until now across 10 ghats (piers) in UP’s Ghazipur district
During the peak of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of bodies washed up on the banks of the Ganges. And this, sadly, became an almost daily affair. Not just hospitals across the country, even crematoriums were overwhelmed. They say, there should be dignity in death and it was clearly lost at this point in UP until social entrepreneur Sanjay Rai Sherpuria took things into his own hands. He set up Lakdi (firewood) Banks to help the poor and marginalised perform the last rites of their family members with dignity in UP's Ghazipur district.
Sanjay Rai Sherpuria | Pic: Lakdi Bank
Started in April, these banks have been set up under the aegis of his organisation Youth Rural Entrepreneurial Foundation, which is working towards the objective of creating employment opportunities for the youth living in the rural areas of India. "I was in Delhi when I saw on TV that dead bodies of COVID affected patients were being dumped in the river in UP, I immediately spoke to my team and reached Ghazipur. When I took stock of the situation I found a few things. There is an age-old ritual, especially in UP and Bihar, that sometimes the bodies are either cremated in firewood or put into the Ganges for the soul to attain peace. This was one reason it was being done, however, the more concerning issue was that there was a huge demand for firewood during the peak of the second wave, due to the increase in number of deaths. Some even took advantage of this situation and began selling firewood at a much higher rate, for instance, what would typically cost you Rs 450, was now being sold at Rs 2500-3000. Families had already spent a lot of money on treatments and medication, leaving them with very few resources and these prices were unaffordable. We identified ten such ghats where this was happening and set up the Lakdi Banks," Sanjay tells us.
With help of local government bodies, a total of 10 firewood banks have been set up until now across 10 ghats (piers) in UP’s Ghazipur district. A team of more than 5000 volunteers and over 45 members provide round-the-clock assistance to people coming to them for cremations. Speaking about why such an initiative was the need of the hour, he says, "According to Indian culture and Hinduism, the last rites after a person's death are considered extremely important and auspicious. If it isn't performed in a dignified manner and people need to struggle to cremate their loved ones even at that point, it is extremely heartbreaking. I felt, as a human being and then a citizen of India, it is our responsibility to help each other at least at the time of death and perform the last rites with dignity."
Firewood collected at the Lakdi Banks being handed over to people
Although the Lakdi Banks aim to help everyone during this time of distress, it also ensures that firewood is reserved for those in dire need and people from the marginalised communities. "We usually consult the village sarpanch to check a person’s financial status, and it is on their reference that we provide the wood free of cost. We also help people who haven't received any aid from the government and are unable to afford even wood to cremate their family members,” adds Sanjay. Each pier also has a team of about five people to oversee the process, and help prevent chaos and confusion. They procure the wood from local markets, while a few farmers are generous enough to donate leftover wood and the team also requests organisations and people who have leftovers to send it to the Lakdi Banks in their areas. Currently, they have a bank of about 600 tons.
Before setting up the Lakdi Banks, Sanjay has also helped by providing medicines, food to people in and around Ghazipur. The team had also set up a COVID centre where treatment was being provided free of cost. Popularly called the messiah of Ghazipur, the social entrepreneur, has been well-known for his efforts in uplifting the rural section of the society and upskilling youth in UP.