Many Indian Americans are organized culturally via associations named after their or their parents’ state of origin in India, and for giving back, their own state invariably becomes their first choice. For example, the Uttar Pradesh Mandal of America, located in California, is an association of Indian Americans originally from the state of Uttar Pradesh. As regards their fundraising initiatives, as with most NGOs during the second wave of the Covid crisis in India, the focus has been on much-needed vaccines, oxygen cylinders and other equipment.
In this article, I would like to draw their attention to address an urgent problem faced by the poor, and which is likely to continue: the lack of funds to cremate/ bury their loved ones, compounded by the racketeering by those in the cremation business.
Dying in dignity
With the rising numbers of Covid deaths during this second wave and the soaring costs of cremation, which rural India could ill afford, they were deprived of the only solace of having their loved ones die in dignity. A report by Piyush Raj for TNN, quoting Rajesh Singh, pointed out that a cremation manager in Varanasi asked him for Rs 11,000, i.e., double the prevailing rate of Rs 5000. Furthermore, the wood and samagri, earlier costing Rs 4000, was now being sold for Rs 11,000; that often half-burnt logs from one cremation were being resold for another cremation, thereby also violating the prescribed Hindu rules for the last rites. Overcharging has come to light in other states as well. As per media reports, corpses could be found floating in the Ganga and also found buried in shallow graves on its banks. Some poor people began to immerse the bodies, as against the age-old practice of immersing only the ashes, of their loved ones in the Ganga, thereby also polluting it—both metaphorically and literally—and thus creating a health hazard.
The root cause of this is the lack of funds, which is likely to continue. The announcement by some state governments to distribute funds to the poor to meet the rising costs of cremations notwithstanding, as always, the civil society needs to pitch in to complement the states’ efforts, especially given the magnitude of the problem.
As a retired member of the IAS from the Uttar Pradesh cadre, I decided to lead by example, and contacted the president of the Uttar Pradesh Mandal of America, which already had a dedicated Covid donations appeal slot on its website, with a focus so far on masks, vaccines and oxygen cylinders. It also had in place a Covid relief team for UP. I ran by the following suggestions with her and agreed to advise UPMA to help carry out this entire project that I have formulated.
- For UPMA to implement at the earliest, the “Covid-Antim-Sanskar Project,” and to raise funds to cover the cost of cremations and burials, which would envisage both reimbursement costs for last rites already performed as well as applications to cover costs following a recent Covid-related death. The focus would be on reimbursements. Since this growing problem is becoming a health hazard, the UP government had announced recently that it would pay for cremations of Covid deaths for the poor to the tune of Rs 5,000.
- Overcharging was rampant, despite notice-boards put up by many district administrations in UP, such as in Varanasi, capping the rates at Rs 7,000 for cremation of Covid bodies and Rs 5000 for non-Covid, and also giving its cell number on which complaints of overcharging could be made. But the problem is compounded as those overcharging would not be giving receipts for their overcharged rates.
- All reimbursements for applicants would need to cover most of the estimated costs of cremation, already incurred, by factoring in the overcharged costs as per press reports: Hearse Rs 5000; Samagri including wood logs Rs 10,000; Cremation site-manager charges Rs 10,000; Priest charges Rs 6,000. Total approximately Rs 21,0000, or approximately $300 per cremation. Minimally, reimbursements would need to cover what was incurred by them—e.g., average of Rs 14,000 over and above the capped rates of Rs 7000 by the district administrations, coming to Rs 7000 or $100/ per person.
- I would coordinate with the District Magistrates in UP, with the initial focus on the 10 cities on the banks of the Ganga, where this problem has been acute. First, by my writing to them on behalf of UPMA, and then with telephone follow-ups, requesting DMs/local NGOs to publicize the creation of this project, inviting applications—which I have formulated—to be administered by local NGOs, and then for the DM office to undertake necessary verification of the applications received, through all available records in his office; the NGOs would then send UPMA this list, so that it could do a direct online transfer to the bank accounts of the verified applicants, thereby ensuring that the funds reach them directly.
- Also, have the DMs simultaneously take steps to enforce their capped cremation rates, through sting operations in all private cremation sites to stop the alleged racketeering; and investigate cases of overcharging, based on the information they gather from the reimbursement applications.
- To have the DMs enlist the help of leading NGOs in Lucknow, some known to UPMA, who would implement this through designated local NGOs, thereby also playing an oversight role to gain confidence of the public. While awaiting UPMA’s formal response, which I received on June 15 in the email from the UPMA president conveying that their “team is excited about the project for Covid relief effort,” I have emailed and networked with key NGOs in UP: Vigyan Foundation with whom UPMA collaborates, who in turn put me in touch with the Inter Agency Group (UP) and Purvanchal Gramin Vikas Sangathan, who jointly cover the 10 cities on Ganga-tat, and almost all of the 75 districts in UP, which we hope to cover in the 2nd phase, funds permitting. I now have a comprehensive list of about 73 NGOs—with their cell numbers and emails—and a sizeable number of CSOs [Community Support Organizations] located in different districts of UP, covering almost all 75, and I have sent this list to UPMA.
- To bring on board the stakeholders, on June 19, via a conference call, the UPMA president (also the Covid Relief fund manager), their India Program Coordinator, and I brainstormed on the rationale, logistics and fundraising of this project, and we agreed for me to start drafting a proposal for fundraising for an early launch, as I emphasized that the poor needed to be given this relief without further loss of time.
This replicable model along with suitable modifications could be emulated by other such state/regional associations in the U.S. I have compiled a list of 50 such associations along with their websites, to whom I would try and email this article. And those who decide to move on this suggestion could send a brief write-up on their initiative to the editor of this newspaper for publication, thereby leading to wider dissemination. But all of us need to act swiftly, as time is of essence, to put in place mechanisms for relief in each state, before the widely-predicted third wave hits India.
(The author is a retired member of the Indian Administrative Service, and now a U.S.-based independent consultant, including disaster management, with a current focus on the Covid-19 crisis in India.)