Meet Our Members – DLR Prerna

Darjeeling Ladenla Road (DLR) Prerna

Inspiring people to go beyond the broom and the dustbin

Interview with Roshan Rai by Sonia G. Astudillo

Prerna means inspiration.  Established in 1993, DLR Prerna sought to figure out what autonomy means for the marginalized within the context of Darjeeling’s regional autonomy demands.  Darjeeling is a Himalayan district in the state of West Bengal, India.  The group consisting of academics, social activists, and educators believe in a world that sees the need to live as one family where the environment is preserved and protected, where conscious efforts are made to remove unjust structures while striving to build a just and humane society.  

DLR Prerna took it as their mission to build sustainable human communities in the Darjeeling hills and the adjoining areas by promoting people’s participation, gender equality, and living in harmony with the environment.

GAIA sat down with Roshan Rai, DLR Prerna’s Program Manager who is with the organization since 1996 to talk about how their organization has evolved through the years, their work with the Zero Waste Himalaya (ZWH), and how they continue to inspire the people in the mountains.

“DLR Prerna looks at what the voice of the marginalized means in the Darjeeling Himalaya and evolving sustainable strategies specifically in the local context,” said Roshan.  In 1996, they started working with small farmers on organic farming and doing environment education in schools.  But later realized “we can’t work on organic farming only when waste from just above the hill flows through the community.”  From there, they started working on community-based conservation with forest villagers and water and sanitation with tea plantations workers.  “Once we started working with tea plantation workers, we realized there is a need to look into the access to clean water and sanitation.  Then we realized further that this is connected to sustainable waste and menstrual waste.”  DLR Prerna partners with small farmers, forest villagers, tea plantation workers, and network partners with the ZWH. 

What are DLR Prerna’s top priorities?

Sustainable agroecology, water and sanitation, health and hygiene education, and Zero Waste.  Sustainable agroecology describes and defines our involvement with small farmers.  We are trying to evolve agricultural practices based on principles of organic farming, permaculture, and resilience to climate change impacts with the small farmers in Darjeeling and Sikkim Himalaya.  We are now experimenting on nutrition in agriculture and this is not just on cooking and growing food but also looking at the packaging of processed food, nutrition, and Zero Waste.  We also work on fair trade.  Our intervention looks at the whole system.      

What are your ongoing campaigns?

DLR Prerna works as a core team member of  Zero Waste Himalaya in shifting the narrative on waste away from just the dustbin and broom.  We have facilitated workshops with students, teachers, and government offices on Zero Waste principles and practices.  Currently there is a plastic ban in Darjeeling and Sikkim and we are working on the inclusion of non-woven plastic bags in the ban.  We observe international days like Plastic Straw/Bag Free Days.

Every year from August 8 to 15, Zero Waste Himalaya calls on individuals and organisations to undertake the Plastic Freedom Challenge (#PFC).  This is significant with Zero Waste Himalaya Day celebrated on August 8 and India’s Independence Day on August 15.  We do online social media campaigns and also go to education institutions and government offices to get pledges.  Through this challenge, some schools have continued plastic bans, stopped junk packaged food, and promoted cooked unpackaged food in the campus.  Some have started composting and growing projects and celebrated local food cultures.  #PFC has evolved through the years and now include menstrual health and promotion of reusable masks.  When we started the #PFC, we were not aware about Plastic Free July, but we decided to stay with #PFC to bring a mountain focus to the movement.

In 2017, Maasika Mahotsav, a weeklong festival to celebrate and break taboo around menstruation, was launched by Muse Foundation.  The aim is to break the silence and promote sustainable menstrual health.  Along with ZWH, we host the event in Darjeeling and Sikkim  and have taken conversations and workshops to schools and public spaces too.

On May 26, 2018, we launched The Himalayan Cleanup with Integrated Mountain Initiative.  For the World Environment Day with the theme, Beat Plastic Pollution, we wanted to go beyond Sikkim and Darjeeling borders and so the Himalayan Cleanup was born.  We partnered with GAIA to include waste assessment and brand audit (WABA).  We had the Gangtok workshop, from May 10-11, 2018, and called on participants from the 12 Himalayan mountains states of India.  We came out with a statement to focus on the waste issue in the mountains and push back against waste burning.  The Cleanup brought about a lot of synergy with over 200 organizations and 15,000 volunteers across the Indian Himalaya participating using their own resources. 

On June 1 of the same year, we presented the result of the cleanup at the workshop organised by the Government of India for World Environment Day in Delhi.  With GAIA, the report was presented on June 4 at the Press Club, Delhi with the larger national results.  There was a huge change in narrative when we named the top polluters of the mountains.  It included international and national corporations. 

Over time our waste narrative evolved.  #PFC allows people to experience how it is to go plastic-free while the WABA helps us identify and call up the top corporate polluters.  

With the COVID, we transitioned online and conducted online sessions some of which are available in our Facebook page Zero Waste Himalaya.  We also anchored comments on the Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) with a mountain lens.  EPR should have the understanding that we should stop plastic pollution.

We are also trying to broaden our base across the mountains. 

What are DLR Prerna’s biggest accomplishments and achievements?

We are contributing to changing the narrative beyond dustbin, broom, rolling down the hill, and burning and building a pool of like-minded people as years go by.  We are doing an important job.  There have been small but particularly important stories like schools who banned plastic and communities in Sikkim deciding to ban bottled water because of the cleanups and campaigns undertaken.

We are part of a growing movement which is very inspiring.  We are continuously evolving.  The fact that we (ZWH) is here as a platform is a big achievement.  It takes a lot of time and energy but through the ZWH, we have expanded our reach.

What challenges are you facing and how is your work impacted by the COVID crisis?

On one side there is the additional COVID waste from disposable masks and other medical waste.  On the other it has also affected our programs.  We now must transition everything to online.  As part of our awareness program, we bring people to the landfills but we are unable to do that now.  For the Himalayan Cleanup Day, we did an online workshop on COVID and waste.

What are the main environmental issues that your country/region is facing?

It is definitely the dramatic increase of plastic waste.  There is a tremendous increase in plastic food packaging and they are getting packaged in smaller and smaller containers which manifest not just as a waste issue but also a health issue for the communities.  All these are intersecting issues.

How do you see your organization’s work evolving in the next years?  How do you envision a just and equitable recovery from COVID?

It is going to be challenging.  Darjeeling is regionally marginalized.  We will still be looking at sustainable livelihood and investing in small farmers agroecology, and fair trade.  We will be working on clean and unpackaged healthy nutritious food.

In the next few years, I envision companies taking responsibility for the waste they produce and investing in sustainable packaging and products.  There will be sustainability in waste management and investment in local products which will help promote equity and well-being.

As an organization, we will continue strengthening our work with ZWH with interventions on school health, agroecology, water and sanitation, local food production, local composting, use of local seeds, and addressing issues of people living next to protected areas and forests.  These may seem a lot but when you are working with the community, these issues will manifest as one.

What are your thoughts on the waste crisis that many countries in your region and in the world are living in right now?

The waste crisis is something that must be brought into more focus.  Waste crisis should be an everyday language of people.  We need to consider the entire lifecycle of a product.  It should be an issue for everyone.

How does your work on waste relate to social justice?

Our work is extremely linked to social justice.  The physicality of our location means there are people who are more affluent and powerful who tend to roll down their waste to communities below them.  Then there are the people working directly on waste whose lives are not acknowledged and reflected for their contribution to society.