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Cremation alternatives
Contrary to popular believe, electric crematoriums electric cremation is nearly seven times more intensive in terms of emission of green house gases as compared to the traditional Hindu style. However, several other greener methods are evolving.
SANKALP SRIVASTAVA, 40, wants to be cremated electrically believing it to be the most environment-friendly style of cremation. He says it conserves less space, unlike a burial and uses the least amount of resources.

There are many who think like Sankalp. Electric cremation, due to various reasons, is slowly becoming the most popular style of cremation in Bangalore. The Wilson garden electric crematorium alone tends to more than 80 deaths per month and there are eight such crematoriums in the city.

According to a report compiled by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in March 2008 on alternate modes of cremation, the Bangalore corporation provides a yearly subsidy of Rs 2.3 million to each electric crematorium. Electric cremations are thus inexpensive, the charges being Rs 50, and the process takes just an hour.

Any person opting for electric cremation before departing leaves very small footprints behind in the family causing minimum financial damage and trauma. But the ecological footprints he leaves behind in the society, even in death, are colossal.

Electric crematoriums in Bangalore consume 43 mega watts of electricity annually.

“Where will you get so much electricity from?” asks Akshay Heblikar, an environmentalist from Eco Watch, a non-governmental organisation. “Production of electricity is itself the most important problem in the state today,” he adds.

Contrary to popular perception, electric crematoriums also lead to more pollution than the traditional Hindu style of cremation, involving burning the body on a pyre. The UNDP report informs that electric cremation is nearly seven times more intensive in terms of emission of green house gases as compared to the traditional Hindu style.

Realising the high environmental costs of electric cremation, scientists and environmentalists, all over the world are mulling over solutions to minimise the ecological footprints of individuals in death.

One option can be a process called ‘Promession’, invented in 1999 by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak. The process involves dipping the body in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Centigrade, till it becomes brittle. The body is then placed on a vibrating mat, so that it disintegrates into powder. It brings life a full circle - from dust to dust. This technology, however, is yet to be adopted whole-heartedly by the world. As of now, only Sweden has given the go-ahead for setting up Promators to facilitate the process. Environmentalists in Britain are campaigning hard for the same in their country.

Solar crematorium also appears to be a viable option, suggests V Ramesh of Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited. India is the front runner in this regard, with Baroda, a city in Gujarat equipped with the world’s first solar crematorium. It was developed by Wolfgang Sheffler, a Swiss national and Ronnie Sabbawala of Rashron Energy and Auto limited. The body is burned exclusively using solar energy.

The second solar crematorium is to be erected in Patna, Bihar, by 2009. But this method also has certain disadvantages. Solar crematoriums are impossible in many parts of India during the winters and monsoons. Also, they can be used only during the day as long as the sun shines.

Another method that can be an alternative to electric cremation is the gasifier based cremation, introduced in Tamil Nadu a couple of years back. Chennai has 38 cremation grounds, of which 29 are to be fitted with gasifiers. The tendering process has been already completed for 10 of them. Biomass is fed into the gasifier and the gas produced is used to light the furnace. A wet scrubber treatment is employed to ensure that ash and heavy particles are mixed with water, which is later used for gardening purposes. The gasifier has two combustion chambers, a primary chamber maintained at around 800 degrees Celsius and a secondary chamber, maintained at around 1000 degrees Celsius to ensure complete combustion of particulate matter.

But as Heblikar rightly points out, some towns and cities do not generate enough biomass for this method to be effective.

“It is very region specific,” he says, “Western ghats can opt for the gasifier, while the Deccan plateau can easily utilise solar energy for cremation.”

Apart from these technologies, eco-friendly improvisations of the wood-based cremation method can also be worked out. For instance, a technology developed in the Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya makes use of an insulated cabin around the corpse, so that the heat and the fire is confined inside the cabin. The process takes about an hour as against the traditional pyre burning method, which takes two or three hours. It also requires lesser wood.

Every year, 4.15 million tonnes of fuel wood is burnt in the process of cremating bodies in India. About 50 million trees are cut, wiping almost 2,000 kilometres of forest cover every year. An ideal situation would be to develop forests specially for the purpose of cremation, planting trees on a continual basis that can ensure a sustainable supply of wood. But there are many operational problems involved as preserving forests itself has become a difficult task today.

The Mokshda green cremation system developed by the Mokshda Paryavaran Evam Van Suraksha Samiti, a non-governmental organisation is another improvised wood-based cremation system. The idea has been adopted by the Union ministry of environment and forests and is to be shortly implemented in cities like Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Allahabad, Kolkata and Haridwar. It is expected to reduce fuel wood consumption by over 60 per cent and to bring about a direct lifetime reduction of 1.28 million tonnes in carbon emissions.

The Parsi method of cremation is hailed as one of the best by many environmentalists, since it requires absolutely no resources. But as Dileep Kamath, a social activist, informs, this style is also encountering practical problems recently due to declining population of vultures. According to a survey, published in the journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in April 2008, the population of white-backed vultures in India, which was more than 30 million in the early 1990s, has been reduced to just 11,000 now.

Lastly, the option of burial. The energy required is zilch. The air and water pollution is zilch. What it requires is a very expensive and limited resource -- land. Although most Muslims, Christians and even some Hindus are still opting for burial, year after year, all countries in the world are facing the same problem -- paucity of land. Many countries, like Japan have started the custom of vertical burials. But piling corpses on top of each other is only a temporary solution to the problem.

Corporates and the governments can join hands to subsidise the most viable method of cremation that reduces the ecological footprints of individuals as they depart. People should also be coerced to think from not an individual, but a holistic point of view.

“A socio-cultural shift is required,” says VT Padmanabhan, an environmentalist.
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