India and the Global Sustainable
Development Agenda

India on the move but whither Bharat?

Two reports released within a span of 5 months in this year provided sharply contrasting visuals of India (or Bharat) today.

The ‘growth story’ or rather the ‘story promised to unfold’ in the pre-budget India economic report of February 2015, indicated that ‘the country's economic expansion will accelerate to a four-year high of as much as 8.5% in the coming fiscal year as recent radical changes in the way the South Asian nation measures its gross domestic product look set to make it the world's fastest-growing big economy’. With a significant acceleration from the previous year’s 7.4%, India has declared that it will soon outpace China in its GDP growth rate. The report also predicted that consumer-price inflation would stay between 5% and 5.5%. The report received with skepticism by many, was seen as a launch pad for the much needed upturn of the economy. This acceleration will take India back to a high paced GDP growth of the decade of 1990s till about 2005. Even if we accept the data and the optimism, the larger question that needs an answer is ‘what really did the growth of the 1990s do (as will this one) for the vast majority of the poor, especially in rural India?’

A second report in July this year verified and validated many of the concerns being raised by social scientists, civil society institutions and development economists. The ‘socio-economic and caste census of India’ released in part in July this year, provided a sobering view of the ‘growth story’ of India and its arrival on the global stage as a superpower (the Hindu, opinion piece). The report is a reality check of our current development policies and their impacts. The extent of poverty, especially in rural India and the multi-dimensional nature of this scrouge clearly brings home the fact that ‘growth’ does not trickle down fast enough, that over 50% of the rural population is marginalised, that quality of life, economic opportunities, incomes and assets including land for the majority in our villages is much below the national average.

Juxtapose the reality of poverty, deprivation, vulnerability and the economic growth that depends on natural resources with the state of natural eco-systems and the situation is truly worrisome. Over the years, our forest cover has degraded in quality and quantity, many of our rivers have become drainage channels and most are heavily polluted, large tracts of the country have been declared ‘black zones’ where ground water has depleted to critical levels, the health of soils in our ‘grain basket’ in Punjab have plummeted and people-environment, industry-environment and people-industry conflicts are rising as resource access and resource ownership issues become flashpoints for violence and unrest.

Prioritising ‘Development of All without Destruction’

In this context of vast inequities, a large population still in the throes of extreme poverty and an exponential rate of eco-system destruction; the country’s development priorities need to be focussed on developing human capacities, ensuring access of basic needs to all and enabling economic opportunities; and all this through environmentally benign and sustainable economic and social processes.

These priorities have been reaffirmed many times over the 68 years of independent India. India’s five year plans, especially the 12th plan from 2012 onwards clearly identified the need for ‘low carbon pathways of development’ and ‘integrated development approaches’. However, the Indian development planning processes have traditionally suffered from a siloed approach that keep social and human development aspects of eco-systems management and economic growth distinct from each other.

Global Discourses on Sustainability

In the past two decades, two global discourses on human and planetary wellbeing have influenced development perspectives of all nations including India - the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Climate Change Impacts. The former focussed on human development issues primarily in the global south addressing the pressing concerns of poverty and hunger, health, education, gender equity and environmental sustainability. The 8 MDGs were distinct (siloed) and necessary but not sufficient components for alleviating poverty. The climate discourse, on the other hand has attempted to address global environmental challenges that threaten human development and life on earth as we know it. It brought to fore the impacts of anthropogenic actions directed by (economic) development decisions across the world in different countries and the fragility of life and human prosperity on an increasingly warm, vulnerable and resource constrained planet. The 15 year period of the MDGs concludes in September this year, while the climate agenda is expected to set in place processes for commitments of action and resource mobilisation at a global level, three months later in December. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that take on the unfinished agenda of the MDGs in September also integrate the actions and concerns that the climate agenda has identified besides addressing issues related to natural resource management, governance, equity and partnerships.

SDGs – the Opportunity, the Challenge and the Potential

The Sustainable Development Goals, an intrinsic part of the new post 2015 Global Development Agenda expected to be ratified by 193 member states of the United Nations in September this year have brought the environment and development concerns together. Designed in a uniquely collaborative process over a period of three years, the new global goals are aspirational in that they reflect the ambitions of all nation states to get all their people above the social floor and prosper. They are universal as they require all to act to benefit as well as bear common but differentiated responsibilities of their actions according to historic contributions as well as current capacities. And finally, the SDGs promise to be truly transformative in the sense that they integrate the health of the planet and human prosperity in many ways. They emphasise the principles of justice, equity, participation and transparency in governance as necessary conditions of sustainable development and they connect private, public and community resources to achieve these.

The SDG framework represents a shared global vision and offers a guide to align national development trajectories with universally applicable sustainability indicators. It provides an opportunity to build momentum on a greener more sustainable development pathway in partnership with a global community pulling in the same direction building human, institutional and economic capacities to prosper on a healthy planet.

The Integrated Nature of SDGs

Many have argued that the 17 Goals and 169 Targets of the SDGs are too complex, not well quantified, not specific enough and repeated across Goals. It is no doubt that the SDGs are complex. Considering that poverty and environment concerns are multi-dimensional, the system to deal with these has to reflect similar complexity. And that is where India could benefit from the global framework and processes.

The interesting aspect of the large array of targets is that because these are inter-connected, policy decisions and investments also need to be inter-connected. A recent report of the UNEP-IRP, ‘Policy Coherence of the Sustainable Development Goals – a natural resources perspective’, clearly illustrates this potential opportunity to promote synergies and avoid environment-development trade-offs through a comprehensive analysis of natural resource and socio-economic system interactions. It also underlines the need to consider the complex governance of resource access, as well as most importantly, it emphasises the need to set up sustainable systems of production and consumption, including circular models of economy both of which are of critical for India in its programmes ‘Make in India’, ‘Smart Cities’ and existing and new missions for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

India Post 2015 – A country in Transition

Let us come back to the development priorities for this country in transition from a poor developing past (and present) to a prosperous sustainable future. How do we synergise the global sustainable development agenda with our national development priorities? What do the SDGs offer us? How can we make best use of this global process (of which we are a leading partner) and what can we offer to the global community in this journey together?

While the 169 Targets may appear too extensive to focus on and pose the risks of ‘spreading ourselves too thin’, theoretically, the interconnectedness of Goals and Targets offer an opportunity to identify ‘lever points’ in the system, investments wherein could yield maximum benefits.

How do we identify these ‘lever points’? The UNEP resources study offers some ideas. Studies on investments required to meet the SDG targets done by UNCTAD, the World Bank and also by our own Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change offer potentially useful methods to identify primary, secondary and tertiary targets from the list of 169 to prioritise actions. Another way to make the SDGs real for India would be to look at the large economic and development initiatives and environmental missions launched and in progress, to run them through these 169 targets to see which one of these programmes contribute to or are in conflict with and to rework these programmes such that conflicts are minimised or better still removed and synergies brought in and integrated.

For example, can the ‘Make in India’ initiative revive the cottage industry and bring large number of rural artisans and entrepreneurs into the market, providing goods and services that can be used by local and distant communities? Can this new avatar of rural industrialisation be connected with renewable sources of energy, utilising and value adding to local resources while protecting and regenerating the resource base? Can the wave of smart urbanisation include besides data systems; greener construction materials, closed loop water and waste management systems, urban food production and planning that reduces extensive commuting and greener urban transportation, urban bio-diversity etc.?

Will we judge our smart cities by how technology is increasing system efficiency and real estate market or will we also measure how safe are our cities? How inclusive are these and how supportive are these of creative pursuits and new ideas? Will we track our agriculture systems with indicators that reflect production per hectare or will we also measure livelihood security of millions of small farmers, healthier food and reduced input requirements connecting resource resilience, food productivity and livelihood security through integrated policies at the village, district, state and national levels. Will we assess the Swachh India mission by the number of people with access to toilets or will we also include ecological management of human waste, potential of conversion of municipal and human waste into productive use and eventually zero waste systems?

Action on goals that address basic human needs of food, water, energy, health and education; those that address economic growth, jobs, infrastructure and human settlements and those that address planetary health such as marine and terrestrial eco-systems and climate change need to check how well the goals on governance and societal systems such as gender equity, SCP and peaceful and equitable societies have been integrated and indicate improved indices on these fronts. Alternatively, it would do us well to keep on our radar, the potential sustainability of development actions because of investments in societal systems, human capability development and creating opportunities for localised economic growth.

The SDG agenda is transformative. One of things that it will need us to transform is our planning systems. It will need us to strengthen our bottom-up village and urban planning processes and reduce centralised (and some of state level) schemes that often drive development agendas and budgets. If complex global sustainability issues need to be integrated and tracked in decentralised development plans, a huge impetus to building capacities of local governments and citizen engagement in development processes will be needed along with investments in data systems that are open, transparent and accountable and that track and report to the citizens as well as to a global audience.

Amit Narang, India’s representative at the UN remarked on August 2nd this year on the adoption of the outcome document of the 'Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development' at the final session of intergovernmental negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda, "Synergy between the global development agenda and the Indian one is important and the two will have to intersect quite closely if either has to succeed. The world can count on India and we also look forward to the support of the international community for assisting the endeavours of India and other developing countries."

What can the world count on India for? And in which way can India provide a leadership in this endeavour? We need to look at lessons on sustainability demonstrated in our country over generations - from the wisdom of water management by desert communities of Rajasthan, to making use of water power by hill communities of Uttarakhand and Himachal, to the indigenous systems of construction that offers safe and affordable housing in the north-east, to the relatively new artisan and farmer cooperatives and producer groups in Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh to integrated planning systems of Hivre Bazaar and community based land pooling for economic and residential infrastructure of the Magarpatta township in Maharashtra. We need to look at people’s movements such as the Lauri Baker movement that have led to large scale capacity development and sustainable housing in Kerala, those that have to led to the protection of species by the Bishnois in Rajasthan or the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand and those that are saving and conserving the indigenous seed varieties in Tamil Nadu. We also need to see the community based water and energy delivery services in Bundelkhand and to the enterprise and livelihood creation done while sustainably managing the forest resources in the Nilgiris. What do these lessons have in common –‘decentralisation of planning and action, people’s institutions and ownership, an intrinsic sensitivity to and recognition that human well-being is dependent on the natural systems’.

Not all problems can be solved or all concerns addressed by systems at local community scales. Yet, the core principles of policy making and development action remain the same. Development Alternatives, in its latest publication ‘To Choose Our Future’ has given five core principles that should guide all our actions –

• the principle of universality that puts equity, fairness and justice at the centre of decision making.

• the principle of system integrity emphasises the interdependence of social, ecological and economic systems and calls for a coherence in policy making, planning and actions.

• the principle of efficiency that underlines the need to do more with less and maximise the value that can be generated from each unit of natural resource, keeping in mind the finite nature of many natural resources and capacity of our environmental sinks.

• the principle of sufficiency balances needs versus wants and asks for lifestyle shifts that prioritise well-being over a consumption driven growth paradigm.

• the principle of harmony that brings to fore balance with nature and system resilience through diversity in all social, cultural, economic, technological and institutional systems.

In order that development actions at large and small scale, centralised and local, corporate or community based and public sector - all pull in the same direction, the policies and interventions should muster the above five principles. And that will require innovation in technology, environmental management systems and institutions systems. This is the leadership that India can provide to the South Asian region, to other developing nations and even developed countries in many ways.

The outcome document of the UN Open Working group that has been debated and will be signed off in September by 193 countries highlights a focus on ‘people-planet-prosperity-peace and partnership’. To this we must add ‘participation and potential (human and ecological)’ and measure our success in achieving SDGs on these integrated criteria and not just on numbers of people reached with basic needs and definitely not just with GDP growth per annum. q

Zeenat Niazi

Bansal, R. S. (2015, July 7). 8 Reality Checks from the SECC. The Hindu .

Means of implementation and the global for sustainable development. ODI. (2015).

International Resource Panel (2015). Policy coherence of the sustainable development goals.

International Resource Panel (2015). Contributing to the SDG process.

Roy, R. (2015, February 27). India Says Growth May Hit 8.5%. Global Finance .

Rural Realities. (2015, July 19). The Hindu.

UNCTAD. (2014). Investing in SDGs: An Action Plan for promoting private sector contributions, Chapter 4. Retrieved June 2015, from       

World Bank. (2010). Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change: Synthesis Report. Washington DC: The World Bank.

Bhamra, A.; Shanker, H.; Niazi, Z. (2015) Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in India: A Study of Financial Requirements and Gaps. New Delhi: Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

• To Choose our Future, Development Alternatives 2015


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