Friday, June 1, 2012

Rituals vs. Modern Day Energy

Disclaimer: Highly orthodox people might find this post offensive. A good idea would be to quit this post right now if you are one.

On my last day at work, just before leaving for India on vacations this time, I had a rather interesting conversation with a colleague over coffee at work. We were discussing the pros and cons of the Church tax being imposed on salaries for Christians in Germany. Suddenly, my colleague asked me about the process of performing the last rites of a person in India. I tried to explain him the different rituals we have in India based on the different religions. Like the Zoroastrians give away to body to sun and vultures in the Tower of Silence, the Christians and Muslims bury their dead ones, the Hindus and Sikhs perform the cremation either in automatic crematoriums or on wooden pyres in open-air.

Just like me, this colleague of mine takes a keen interest in world history. We also share a common interest of knowing and learning different cultures of the world. So, when my colleague heard about my above explanation, he was particularly intrigued by the Hindu and Sikh open-air cremation process. After thinking for a while, he came back to me and said he had a great idea. He is well aware of the energy problems in India and knows about all the power cuts we have on a regular basis. He also knows that the majority population in India follows Hinduism. He therefore suggested very casually, that why people in India don’t perform this open-air cremation in a more controlled fashion. He said that given the number of people dead everyday in a country of more than a billion people, there might be a lot of wood being burned for these funeral pyres. Moreover, since the human body also releases energy on being burned, all this energy can be used to generate energy or power like in a power plant.

Hearing such out of the box suggestions, I was a bit taken back and frankly speaking a little flabbergasted. My immediate reaction was to ask him if he had lost his mind. He replied very formally that he was serious. I said to him that any mention of this idea in India might be faced by a big backlash by the orthodox community. I further said that this might not be possible in India. He asked authoritatively, why not? What is the problem? I had to explain him that the last rituals for a dead person are considered very sacred by many people and the loved ones of such people might not like to hear or see such a cremation being used to commercially produce power or electricity. He looked confused and asked back, is it not a virtue of major religions in India of helping other fellow human beings. What could be more rewarding than serving humanity even when you are gone? I could not really answer all his questions. I was myself confused between morality, religion, rituals and the modernization for the sake of energy. I was not able to take any side with complete conviction. He still insisted that it is a great idea and wondered why it had not been already implemented in India.

Two days after the discussion, I was supposed to leave for vacations to India. My Air India flight got canceled due to the strike and I was stuck at Frankfurt airport for a long time. That discussion I had with my colleague had still not left me and was still there at the back of my mind. So, just to kill time at the airport, I decided to dig in further on the topic.

I googled whether this idea is already implemented somewhere in India or any place else in the world. As expected, I could not find any information for such methods in India but I found a similar thing being proposed in a county of UK. It stated: Dead bodies to be burned to heat UK Swimming Pool. Frankly speaking, I was pretty amazed to read the article on the same since I had never expected it to happen in my wildest dreams. My curiosity took me to various online debates on the same topic and for this implementation in the UK. Clearly, there were two parties both in favor and against. I encountered some really challenging and thought provoking ideas and questions in those debates.

After being convinced about the feasibility of such an implementation somewhere in the world made me dig deeper. I got more curious if such an idea for India really made any sense from practical point of view. So, I decided to run upon some numbers. I made some quick calculations from data collected from Wikipedia and the internet. I cannot say for sure how correct are my calculations since I am not a mathematics guy or a power plant expert. If anyone could cross check these calculations, I would be glad to hear from you even if they don’t make any sense. So, here are some quick and dirty calculations:

Number of deaths per minute in India: 10
Number of cremations per day: 8 * 60 * 24 = 11,520 [Assuming 8 out of 10 people are cremated on an average, 60 mins in an hours and 24 hours in a day]

Average amount of wood needed for 1 cremation: 300 kg
1 kg of wood produces: 3-4 kwh [1 kwh = 3.6 * 106 Joules of energy]

Energy generated from 1 cremation: 300 * 3 kwh = 900 kwh
Energy generated from the total number of cremations per day: 900 * 11,520 kwh = 10,368,000 kwh = 107 kwh [rounding off for easy calculations]

1 MW power plant produces per month: 106 kwh

There are some power plants (diesel based) with approximately similar capacities as mentioned above [Source]

All the above mentioned calculations are very rough. I have not even included any energy generated by the dead bodies themselves. So, that might even increase the total amount of energy generated. This means that the feasibility of such an idea is possible. Of course, I have left several other issues like logistics, investment etc but my main target was to see if the idea even makes sense. And the biggest issue is of morality, ethics and sentiments. Would I be okay to see a private company making profits by selling energy to the people of my country by using the funeral pyre of my loved one at the end of the day ? I am still looking for an answer to that !


carl can said...

I am to submit a report on this niche your post has been very very helpfull cremation in columbus ga

Dr Mandeep Khanuja said...

a very imp topic to think about. A few days bck i told my mum that my eye-donation card shud be re-made as my previous one is submitted in shankar netralya in chennai. Even though both my parents are doctors they wer aghast that i had done such a thing ! I always thought it is good to be useful to someone,if not alive then atleast dead :) I even mentioned that i would go as far as organ donation and was well received by their glares,so thought...ok yea may be sometime later.
but i do believe that all that cud be done.....shud be done. said...

carl can: glad to know it was helpful for you

Doc: even in today's world, there is an everyday tussle between cultures and modernity .... and it is becoming complex to draw the line between them :|

Bubblegum.... said...

Brilliant! I guess, I am still confused with the idea. But, a very practical approach, may be we can find a process which will not make orthodox people feel offended.

shooting star said...

very interesting aand riddled with heavy moralistic and sentimental issues!!

i dunno what to say..yes or no!! said...

Bubblegum: I think we still have a long way to go before reaching there.

Sushmita: I know it can be tough to answer that. I am still not sure myself :)

nehawrites said...

Extremely controversial concept. It sounds interesting but given this is India, it's not going to happen any time in the near future.

If the energy generated is being used fo power generation is areas which have no access to electrification e.g. rural areas and schools or hospitals in these areas, people might say - in death our loved ones are giving back, then it might work. But if it has to be used for commercial purposes, then I think it will be a big failure as no one would accept it. said...

Neha: Controversial it is, no doubt :) The comments on the UK news piece also indicate that even people in the more liberal west thinks it is a crazy idea.
Your idea sounds good but anyone investing money to build up the infrastructure and logistics will expect something back. Unless an NGO or charity takes up the project.