Increasing air pollution across India is a serious issue, and despite conscientious debates around it, systematic steps haven’t been taken by authorities on-ground to address it. The air quality of Delhi NCR has worsened to the extent of the region being compared to a gas chamber, and reasons include both human and non-human activities. Emissions from exhaust pipes of vehicles, burning of stubble in paddy fields in neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana, dust from construction sites, burning of trash containing plastic, rubber and metal, bursting of firecrackers during Diwali, and residential fuel burning in villages nearby constitute human activities. There are certain non-human activities like pre-monsoon dust storms and unfavourable wind currents that add to air pollution, but we can only find solutions to problems within our scope.
So many factors contributing to air pollution make the situation sound miserable as sin, but history attests to the fact that innovators take the onus upon themselves to bring about change in times of adversity. These problems render opportunities to entrepreneurs who thrive on motivation of making an indelible impact on society. Entrepreneurs, in all sectors, face many challenges, like having an unsustainable business model, inadequate mentoring support, lack of funds or unpredictability of markets. These challenges can get overwhelming, demotivating them to the extent of transitioning to another problem statement, or even quitting.
The significance of renowned challenges like Hult Prize, Humanitarian Grand Challenge and Misk Grand Challenges is that they are authentic and concentrate majorly on problem-solving and effectively working on the ground. It is also important to note than young people are driving the change, as we saw from the first edition of the Ashoka Pillar Award where students came up with viable, cost-efficient and innovative solutions, which look at issues like stubble burning from the view of the poor farmer. It has, so far, not been economically feasible for farmers to commit time, labour and the expense to focus on poor air quality. So we decided to ask young entrepreneurs to solve this issue in a way that would be attractive to farmers. Intellectual endeavours need private funding, and Anita Manwani of Carobar came forward to financially support this initiative. In the inaugural edition, the aim was to find solutions to the worsening air quality of NCR. After multiple screenings, six teams pitched their solutions. The winning team, supported with mentorship and prize grant, is taking its idea of “reusing stubble instead of burning it” forward. This opportunity has all the ingredients of being transformed into a successful sustainable venture. Such grand challenges are also perfect platforms to push entrepreneurs out of their comfort zone and harness their full potential.
Across the globe, a culture of launching grand challenges for solving critical issues faced by humanity is thriving. These possess the potential to find long-term, sustainable and impacting solutions to acute problems. Volunteer foundations, NGOs, universities and peace-making offices can play a major role in channelising these challenges to completion by providing logistic and monetary support. These institutions need to market the challenges exceedingly well to reach the right audience—innovators, entrepreneurs, visionaries. Entrepreneurs, through such challenges, can not only present ideas and solutions, but take them forward too, through support in terms of mentorship and funding. Such a conducive environment is a win-win situation for all. The institutions manage to reach the right entrepreneurs, the entrepreneurs get a platform to implement their ideas, and the customers of the product or service get the much-needed respite from problems plaguing them.
Another element these challenges accomplish is the nurturing of a mindset catering to social consciousness around a business model. For a problem like worsening air quality of NCR, stepping out of traditional methods will, in itself, involve social considerations. Ventures that promote use of public transportation and renewable energy will not only solve the crisis of worsening air quality, but also educate people to adopt an ecofriendly lifestyle. Such social and cultural changes are carried forward by generations henceforth.
By- Priyank Narayan, Director, Centre for Entrepreneurship at Ashoka University