Karimnagar, known as the ‘city of granites’ in Telangana, has hit the headlines, not for the business it generates but for its humane approach towards bereaved families. It’s a city that truly cares for the dead.
The city of a population of 3.5 lakh has set an example for the rest of the country by launching funeral services at a cost of just ₹1 to help poor families perform the last rites of their loved ones.
Driving the novel initiative is S Ravinder Singh, a Sikh mayor of the Karimnagar Municipal Corporation. “Not just life but death is also a burden for many poor families. When someone dies in these families, they often find it difficult to pool money for a funeral,” he says.
Since his college days, Singh (55) has been donating money to poor families for funeral expenses. “I have seen many families struggling to mobilise money to perform the last rites. For many Indians, death is like marriage because both involve big expenses and rituals. After I became the mayor, I thought of doing something that gives dignity to death,” he told The Federal.
The municipal corporation launched the scheme ‘Antim Yatra’ (Last Journey) on June 15. It bears all the expenses for the last rites of the dead, be it cremation or burial. Under it, the corporation provides a hearse van for the funeral procession and materials required for performing the last rites, including flowers, garlands, firewood, sandalwood pieces, kerosene, ghee and new clothes for the person performing the funeral, all for Rs 1.
“We have a staff of 1500 people and another 500 volunteers. Every morning, they go around the city, approach the grieving families and explain to them about the facility being provided by the corporation. In the last four days, we have helped 17 such families and performed the last rites,” the Mayor said.
The corporation also arranges food for about 50 relatives of the deceased after the funeral. For Muslim and Christian families, the corporation provides all the required facilities, besides allocating space for burial.
“For the last ten years, I have been personally donating ₹2,000 to ₹3,000 to the poor for performing the last rites of their family members. But I have realised that performing last rites as per the rituals is as costly as organising a marriage, especially among the Hindus. So, I got this idea of funding the cost of the funeral from the municipal corporation budget itself,” he said.
“We charge a token service fee of ₹1 as a Supreme Court order bars local bodies from providing any service free of cost, insisting that there should be some kind of a service charge,” Singh said.
The Karimnagar Municipal Corporation has allocated ₹1.10 crore in the current year’s budget for the scheme. It is also planning to purchase new vehicles at a cost of ₹50 lakh for carrying the dead bodies.
There are also plans to construct a separate building to keep the bodies of the deceased before they are taken to the crematorium or burial ground.
“Most of the people stay in rented houses and if any of their family members die, the landlords generally do not allow the bodies in the houses. For such people, we are planning to provide space to keep the bodies till the funeral arrangements are made and also for performing the rituals,” Singh said.
“In some cases, when people do not have money, the community elders pool in money to perform the funeral. To reduce this burden and reinforce faith among the poorer sections, the corporation has taken a decision to perform the final rites of the deceased by collecting a token amount of ₹1,” the Mayor said.
The corporation also plans to start a toll-free number to enable people to inform authorities about deaths in their localities.
“I was elected as a councillor for the first time in 1995. A majority of the population in my ward were ‘fakirs’ who used to lead life by collecting alms. So, it was very difficult to perform the funeral of the poor fakirs if any of them passed away. I would pay for their funerals from my own pocket. Sometimes, relatives and others would also help. It was then itself that I decided to find a solution to the problem and perform final rites of poor for free,” he recalled.
Donations pour in
The novel initiative has evoked huge response from the general public who have been pitching in with donations for the scheme. “Our staff has decided to donate a day’s salary towards the scheme,” said Singh who himself has donated ₹50,000 from his salary. A separate bank account has been opened to enable the donors to send in their contributions.
Rajgopal Reddy, managing director of Hyderabad-based Last Rites Indian Services Private Limited has promised to supply of funeral kits for all communities free of cost. Similarly, the district Marwadi Yuva Morcha leaders have handed over ₹20,000-cheque as their contribution for the scheme.