According to the World Health Organisation report, India has 22 cities out of 30 most polluted cities in the world. But only capital city Delhi gets all the media attention. Recently, Delhi has declared emergency as air quality indexcrossed the severe zone. As per Delhi Heart and Lung Institute, half of the children in Delhi (more than 2 million) have issues with lungs,and more than one million Indians die each year due to air pollution. Pollution is a recurring issue, and unfortunately after some coverage in the media, it dies its natural death to resurface again next year in the winter season.
Apart from the blame game, what we can do to tackle this monster? Such enormous problems need creative, imaginative, and innovative solutions. Probably, we need to learn from a 16-year-old teenager - Greta Thunberg, who was nominated for Noble Peace Prize in 2019. Greta is an environmental activist from Sweden, who is now a global face to fight against climate change. She protested in front of the parliament, which became a mass movement of ‘school climate strike.’
Teenagers found a strong natural connection with her due to the similar age-group.
Infact, teens and kids are incredibly influential in family decisions. They are the deciding factor about which brand of TV to buy. The Government should appeal to teens to bring the awareness about pollution and ways to improve. After Diwali, few media reports have mentioned that how kids did not buy the crackers (reduction upto 20 per cent) or went for eco-friendly alternatives after sessions on the ill-effects of crackers on pollution were conducted in the schools. So, like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and other initiatives, the government must include the schools in their planning and communications.
Changing human behavior is probably the toughest job (ask marketers!), and that’s why a lot of money goes down the drain in tackling the problems of smoking, alcoholism, and accidental deaths due to traffic negligence. So, a big-bang approach of fixing the issue at hand may not work at all. We must start with small steps, which should become a habit.
For example, Greta does not travel by air or consume meat. Such small but effective alternatives must be communicated to people. To make it permanent, we should look to integrate technology with gamification. Indian teens live and breathe by their smartphones! An app can be developed based on the concepts of gamification, where users get a chance to earn daily rewards. The magnitude of rewards will depend on the activates - for example, preferring public transport (or a train) over air-travel may get player more points versus opting for a veg meal over meat.
Dr. Robert Cialdini, a renowned researcher on the topic of psychology of influence, suggests reciprocity as the first universal principle of influence. Like, reduced usage of Diwali crackers, when a teenager avoids non-veg mean and explains to her parents or peers, there are high chances of similar reciprocal behavior from others. Such small gestures may become viral like the ice-bucket challenge. Doing good things once is ok, but a broader recognition and appreciation motivate people to practice good behavior, which ultimately becomes a good habit. Hence, a continuous reinforcement and reward mechanism should be put in place to recognise good samaritans.
Perhaps, another tough task is to handle the adults who are contributing to the pollution via burning paddy or driving polluting vehicles. Here, we can utilise the theory of emotions to evoke shame and guilt to enforce positive behavior. For example, anti-smoke campaigns are using the guilt effect by showing how smoking affects kids at home or how one person can save the life of his wife by making better use of the money spent on smoking.
Finally, the knee-jerk reactions and political fighting will not solve this issue, which affects us all. Hence it is imperative to involve people to fight their battle. We must think of innovative ways and create our own Greta Thunberg in each school/locality to create not only awareness but a super-persuading agent who shows by practice how to save the earth. Hopefully, the next generation, which will face the consequences of our actions, can make the future better by solving the problems today. Not to forget that savings on health care costs can directly add to 1.5-2 percent of GDP!
(The author is an assistant professor – marketing, Indian Institute of Management Ranchi.)