This social entrepreneur’s Lakdi Bank provides the marginalised dignity in death

Sanjay Rai Sherpuria was haunted by the images of floating corpses in the River Ganges during the second wave. He decided to do something to help those families who were unable to afford to pay for the last rites of their loved ones.

The second wave of the pandemic saw many heartening scenes, but perhaps one of the most stinging of them all was that floating corpses in the River Ganges. Many found it impossible to bid their loved ones a dignified goodbye, sometimes due to the prevalent circumstances, and at other times due to lack of financial resources.

With the aim of supporting those families whose loved ones have succumbed to the coronavirus, social worker and entrepreneur Sanjay Rai Sherpuria decided to start a firewood collection called Lakdi Bank. Besides sourcing wood, he and his team of 45 members and over 5000 volunteers would also offered financial aid to those who were unable to afford to pay for the last rites of their loved ones.

“We also undertook the task of cremating the bodies that had no caregivers and were lying unclaimed at the riverbanks. When the entire country is combating the pandemic, I consider it to be my moral responsibility to work towards the betterment of both people and the environment.” says Sanjay in a conversation with YourStory.

Sanjay Rai Sherpuria

All about the working of these wood banks

Launched in April 2021, the Lakdi Bank has been set up under the guidance of Youth Rural Entrepreneurial Foundation, which has been working towards generating employment opportunities for the youth residing in the country’s rural areas.

The helpers and volunteers at the bank also help people in procuring slots at the various cremation grounds. The initiative gained popularity through posters and word of mouth, and the organisation has so far set up 10 Lakdi Banks around various riverbanks in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh. Each pier also has a team of about 5 people who supervise the cremation process to avoid any confusion.

"The bank allows almost anyone to come and donate wood. While some farmers in the district have been generous enough to donate wood, we have also requested organisations and people who have unused wood to send it to us. We now have about 600 tonnes of wood, and are getting monetary donations as well.” Sanjay says.

The reach of the initiative has been massive, helping many families put their loved ones to rest in a dignified way. So far, the initiative has collected around Rs 20 lakh ($27,000), and is aiming for Rs 1 crore ($135,000) so that the team can provide basic amenities to the ghats (riverbank locations) where cremations happen.

Some challenges along the way

As the second wave took a heavy toll on lives, the demand for firewood increased exponentially. Some even tried to use this situation to their advantage and started trading firewood at a much higher rate than the market price. What would usually cost Rs 450 was now being sold at Rs 2500 to Rs 3000. Families had already spent a lot of funds on treatments and medication, leaving them with very little resources.

“We identified 10 ghats where this was happening and set up the Lakdi Bank around these places. The initiative has not only offered economic aid to the poor people but also ensured cleanliness and pristine flow of the river,” Sanjay adds.

The initiative gained popularity through posters and word of mouth, and the organisation has so far set up 10 Lakdi Banks around various riverbanks in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh.

Path towards sustainability

Lakdi Bank has come up with an inventive solution to deal with the scarcity of wood, whilst also increasing employment. They have now started adopting abandoned cows and producing fuel from their dung.

“We have developed a machine to produce cow dung-based fuel, which will offer advantages like preventing cutting of trees and will also facilitate villagers to earn money in return for the cow dung they provide us with. It will also avert them from abandoning the cows once they stop milk production.” adds Sanjay, with a mission to make Lakdi Bank an eco-friendly initiative.

The journey ahead

Alongside Lakdi Bank, Sanjay and his team have also set up a quick COVID-19 response centre in Ghazipur that offers villagers easy access to resources for treatment. Through a call centre that is operated round the clock by 70 people, it has so far responded to 16,000 calls and emergencies. The centre also has a team that travels to every village in Ghazipur district to conduct COVID-19 tests, offer medications and raise awareness.

The organization has provided over 200 oxygen concentrators to save precious lives battling for breath and equipped around 53,000 frontline warriors with medicines, masks and face shields. They have further announced the creation of a 50-bed modern trauma centre within the district hospital to aid treatment and have also started work towards setting up one oxygen plant and six ventilators at Sadar Vora Bazaar, Ghazipur.

Edited by Anju Narayanan