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Project Arth: reducing pollution with dung

An initiative by students at IIT Delhi has the potential to help combat two of India’s most problematic environmental challenges

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In 30 seconds...

  • The amount of wood used in traditional cremations in India is a huge problem in terms of air and land pollution and destruction of forestry
  • Social entrepreneurship venture Arth is tackling the problem through the conversion of cow dung into clean-energy biomass ‘logs’
  • The team from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi overcame many technical and cultural problems to bring the product to market
  • Forecasts indicate that the project will prevent the escape of around 2.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 4,500 tonnes of methane, and generate around £4 million in wages for the local economy, in next two years.

Since its inception in 2018, Project Arth has won many national and international plaudits – which is no surprise, given that it is successfully tackling two of India’s biggest climate-related problems in one ingenious solution: the conversion of cow dung into clean-energy biomass ‘logs’ for use in cremations.

What is perhaps surprising is that the plethora of accolades includes the London Business School 2020 Real Innovation Award in the category ‘If At First You Don’t Succeed,’ given to an individual or organisation that has triumphed over the odds to bring its product to the marketplace.

Arth, which describes itself as a “a social entrepreneurship venture”, is an initiative run by a team of students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi who use technology to try to resolve India’s social and environmental problems – and the amount of wood used in traditional cremations in India is a huge problem in terms of air and land pollution, and destruction of forestry.

Lasting over six hours, a traditional Hindu funeral pyre burns between 400 to 500 kilograms of wood. As a result, India’s eight million wood-based cremations lead to the deforestation of more than 16 million trees per year – trees which would otherwise capture 54 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and prevent them from entering Earth’s atmosphere and adding to global warming.

As it happens, IIT Delhi is based near one of the largest gaushalas (protective shelters for cows) in India, the Shree Krishna gaushala, so the Arth team was only too aware that, every day, such sites produce hundreds of tons of cow dung that is often either dumped in rivers or goes into methane-producing landfill – both at great environmental cost. Was there a way to dispose of the dung in a way that was more environmentally friendly, and which at the same time could help solve the wood-burning problem?

"The students hypothesised that, as the cow is sacred to Hindus, its dung is in fact holy; hence its use in cremations would not meet with religious resistance"

Cultural resistance

The team decided to try to convert the dung into fuel that could be used in cremations. That sounds a simple proposition, if technically challenging, but the problems were not just technical: as a religious ritual, there is great resistance to using “alternative” sources of energy, such as electricity, in Hindu cremation ceremonies. And, indeed, many expressed scepticism about using cow dung in the funerary rites. Undeterred, the students hypothesised that, as the cow is sacred to Hindus, its dung is in fact holy; hence its use in cremations would not meet with religious resistance. To test this hypothesis, the team conducted tests and surveys by talking to priests – and found they not only had no objections to the use of cow dung, but were more than willing to advocate for its use in cremations as an environmentally superior and religiously acceptable fuel.

The technical problems

That just left the technical problems. The first was to find a way to dry the dung so that it could be burnt as fuel. The team began by building a huge greenhouse to use natural convection (use of sunlight) to dry the dung, and significant time and fund money went into designing the structure. Unfortunately, it was a failure: drying time is a function of heat plus wind – and there was no wind in the greenhouse.

So, a new way to dry the dung was needed. The next attempt featured the use of heaters with fans powered by liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to provide both heat and wind. This bore promising early results in terms of drying times, but the use of LPG ran counter to the team’s clean-energy mission. The team finally decided to try using biomass (energy generated from organic matter) to run the heaters and, after extensive research, eventually formulated a ‘recipe’ that used agricultural additives to produce a fuel out of the dung that had superior combustion properties compared to pure cow-dung ‘cakes.’ To ensure the end product was likely to be culturally acceptable, the dung was first shaped by machine, then dried with agricultural additives to make it look exactly like a wood log.

Eventually, the project secured enough grant-funding to set up its first manufacturing hub, including a log extrusion machine, storage facilities and drying systems, at the Shree Krishna gaushala, which is home to 8,000-plus cows, and began supplying cow-dung logs to the largest crematorium in Delhi, where more than 50 bodies are cremated daily.

Helping to cope with Covid

Not long after the Delhi crematorium began using the logs, the Covid-19 pandemic hit India and the surge in deaths triggered a shortage of wood needed for cremations, prompting Arth to sponsor over 200 cremations of the poor and unclaimed bodies. Project leader Ayush Sultania said: “Outside Delhi, we help the poor and needy directly, and now provide the cow-dung logs to the six crematoriums in New Delhi free of charge. We have conducted the last rites of many abandoned bodies of the elderly, who died of Covid, and many street dwellers.”

According to Sultania, besides minimising deforestation, Arth’s research shows that the use of the logs is reducing carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions from cremations by 20%.

Future plans include increasing the number of machines that manufacture the logs, developing better infrastructure at gaushalas, and setting up storage facilities. Sultania said: “We plan to sponsor 1,000 dignified cremations in Delhi.” Arth is also collaborating with local artisans and women in rural communities in the manufacturing of new eco-friendly products, including ‘dhoop’ incense cups used in aroma therapy and other consumer products, such as ‘Madhubani’ wall clocks made of organic materials.

Arth estimates that the project will, in two years’ time, have prevented the escape of around 2.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 4,500 tonnes of methane, and generated around £4 million in wages for the local economy – as well as significantly impacting water pollution by helping to keep rivers and drains free of cow dung.

Generating headlines such as “Delhi kids help last rites go green with cow dung logs” (The Times of India) and “Arth: The Last Rite Done Right” (greenisthenewblack.com), Project Arth is set to grab many more column inches in the international press – but this time it will come as no surprise.