RC Nilgiris creates a crematorium & biodiversity park

Located in the cool environs of Coonoor town is the oldest Rotary club in RI district 3203 and one of the oldest in India, having been started in 1941. The Rotary Club of Nilgiris is living up to the impressive history it has charted by doing several significant projects; the one on renovating, modernising and revolutionising a panchayat middle school in Bettati in Nilgiris at a cost of ₹51 lakh was featured in this magazine a few months ago.

Lt Gen M G Girish at the crematorium complex.

A couple of other noteworthy projects this club has done include setting up a dialysis centre in Coonoor, providing an ICU on wheels and a gas-fired crematorium. A palliative and geriatric care unit at the Government Lawley Hospital at a cost of ₹2 crore, is now being put up.

I visit the idyllic setting in which the Rotary crematorium is set up, accompanied by a group of senior Rotarians from the club, including two past presidents Lt Gen (retd) M G Girish and Vijaya Kumar Dar, who have been spearheading this project. Gen Girish briefs me that prior to 2005, when this crematorium was set up by RC Nilgiris in a sprawling 2.5-acre plot given for the project by the Willingdon Cantonment Board, there was only one conventional wood-fired crematorium in Coonoor and that too in a dilapidated condition. The project to set up a gas-fired crematorium was taken up by the club in 2005 and a corpus fund of ₹40 lakh was collected from different donors in the city.

Earlier RC Ootacamund was also supposed to partner in this project, but later withdrew. The crematorium started functioning in 2005 with an LPG-fired furnace.

 “In three years, it broke down, and in 2008, when I joined the club, I learnt it was going to be shut down. Perhaps the costing had not been done right, because the cost of LPG and other operations were constantly going up, but we were charging a pittance (₹2,000) and there was no support from anyone. I took it as a personal challenge to raise enough funds to keep it running, went with a begging bowl and collected ₹15 lakh from the local people through a couple of fundraisers,” says Dar.

(From L) RC Nilgiris past president B C Kumar, Vijaya Kumar Dar, Gen M G Girish, club president Captain C H N Kumar and Charles Nathan.

That money was used to repair and renovate the facilities, set up a chimney system and a garden, but it was still not enough. The rate was revised to ₹9,000, and CSR funds were brought in from Microland (₹20 lakh).

Gen Girish explains that the crematorium now has 16 LPG cylinders; eight cylinders are used at one time, connected to the machine and they fire simultaneously. The cremation is completed in an hour and one cylinder is used for each body.

But the core group involved in the project has more ambitious plans to turn this into a serene and soothing place from where the family can bid a final goodbye to their loved one.

Biodiversity park

While in the short term the Rotarians want to build a kind of lounge where the family members can be seated, or hold a prayer or remembrance meet while the cremation takes place, the long-term plan is to “use this beautiful green piece of land to set up a biodiversity park.”

Gen Girish introduces me to another club member Charles Nathan, “a complete man of nature, who is extremely knowledgeable about nature, birds, bees, trees, plants and animals. He has spent 20 long years in Africa and has volunteered to convert this place into a biodiversity park. When that is done, we plan to get school kids over here for an educational tour to learn about the environment. This also fits in beautifully with Rotary’s latest area of focus — conservation of the environment.”

And, he adds, not using wood for burning the body is itself “an environment project because through this gas-fired cremation we save a 20-year-old tree. In a normal cremation, half a tonne of wood is used, so if we do 100 cremations, we save 50 tonnes of wood. And that amount to so many trees.”

The dialysis centre set up by the club at the Government Lawley Hospital.

He adds that ultimately the project will be a combination of a crematorium and biodiversity park, “so that the mourners get a sense of peace and harmony with nature, rather than just experience grief and sadness. We hope to give them a feeling of satisfaction that their loved ones have gone through the last journey from such a beautiful place.”

Gen Girish, a two-term club president, who retired from the Indian army in 2006 and calls himself a ‘piece of fossil,’ in typical army humour, says that even people from Ootacamund use this service, and for those who can’t afford the fee, Rotarians raise the money. “So whether it is the richest estate owner in Coonoor, or a poor man on the street, all of them get the same kind of cremation here.” During Covid, at least three cremations a day took place here.

This final resting place is indeed enchanting… green grass and rich foliage, colourful and fragrant flowers, lovely balmy climate of the hills, and a serenity where the welcome break is the sweet chirping of birds. Nathan says that the place is a hive of activity, a couple of peacocks come there regularly, and the nesting season has started. Emerald doves, spotted doves, jungle fowls, herons… all of them are found here. The stream in this property brings the birds and the grain attracts the peacocks and jungle fowl.

Charles Nathan, a club member who has spent 20 years in Africa on ecology projects, has volunteered to convert this place into a biodiversity park.

A migration path for butterflies is also there but this is not the season, and a few plants, which are particularly attractive to butterflies, from the Jungle Lodge in Masinagudi will be planted here.

As Nathan explains all this, Kali, a worker describes how he was amazed and enchanted to see a “baby butterfly open its wings for the first time and fly away”! Apart from squirrels and mongoose, porcupines, barking deer, and a bear also come here; “we haven’t seen the bear, but the clear marks are there,” adds Nathan.

Gen Girish thanked Vijaya Dar for helping in getting CSR funds for the club’s projects.

An ICU on wheels

Earlier this year in August, RC Nilgiris launched an advanced life support ambulance which essentially is a cardiac care ICU on wheels. “We have a driver and a paramedic and whenever a local hospital requires to send out a patient for advanced medical care — mainly to Coimbatore, this well-equipped ambulance is available,” says Dar who helped to get CSR funds from Kotak Mahindra Bank for this project, which cost ₹25 lakh.

Earlier, these thoughtful Rotarians stationed a golf cart, costing ₹5 lakh, at the Government Lawley Hospital, which, as most buildings in the hills, is located at several levels on a slope and this battery-operated vehicle can transport patients and their relatives from one section to another.

Two years ago, noting that there were no dialysis facilities in Coonoor, and “poor people requiring dialysis were simply left to die as they could not afford to go to Coimbatore every time, we set up a dialysis unit. We were planning this project for a long time but had no support from a hospital. Because we can only set it up and not run such a unit for lack of expertise.”

But one fine day, in a dialogue with the Lawley Hospital CMO, when he offered to give them a hall, a unit was set up with six machines at a cost of ₹70 lakh with funding from Microland, Sancheti Brothers, Fairfax, and others. “We have put up state-of-the-art machines and the government charges only ₹500 to those who can afford to pay and nothing to those who can’t,” Dar adds.

At the Lawley Hospital, the club has done a dental unit, OPD, and is now putting up a palliative and geriatric care unit at a cost of ₹2 crore with CSR funds.

At the Lawley Hospital, the club has also done up a dental unit, OPD, and now has plans to put up a palliative care and geriatric care unit at a total cost of ₹2 crore, again with CSR funds. “We have a good relationship with corporates,” grins Dar, adding on a serious note: “Basically what is important is credibility, people have to believe you’re using the funds properly and that no money is being siphoned off. We have practically zero admin expenses for our charitable projects, as the club is run on members’ money.”

Deepika Unni, the club’s public image chair, and a core member of the Bettati school project, shares a video clip on how the children from this panchayat school put up a play, entirely in English, on Children’s Day, the very day on which I was writing this article. As described in the Bettati school article, all the children and their parents had expressed the desire that they should learn English, and the Rotarians had specially budgeted for the salary of an English teacher. “Imagine the effect of one English medium teacher on these kids. We were blown away,” comments Deepika.

Watching the clip, I couldn’t agree more.

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