India: Missing the Bus on Sustainable Development Goals?

08 May, 2017    ·   5282

Garima Maheshwari looks at how sustainability has become a burden of technocratic formality rather than a policy-implementable mainstay

Garima Maheshwari
Garima Maheshwari
Researcher, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS)

In April 2017, the Government of India released a draft set of India’s indicators for mapping the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in the country for public consultation. Spanning a set of 17 SDGs and their 169 targets mandated through intergovernmental consensus at the UN, the indicators are supposed to evolve a country-specific framework of metrics for SDG implementation. 

A closer gap analysis of the draft indicator framework reveals certain indicators to be more of the nature of collated governmental data metrics or a transposition of the original targets as they are, instead of being a reflection of the context-specific demands of sustainability in the country. This calls for sustainability to be made a policy-implementable mainstay rather than a burden of technocratic formality.

Lackadaisical Approach towards Sustainability Implementation
Adopted by the global community in 2015, SDGs were supposed to centralise sustainability, not no-holds-barred development. It is thus ironic that when the Indian government experts finally got around to mapping India-specific indicators for the SDGs, the focus was on everything but sustainability. While it is rather easy to see a compendium of environment-specific indicators for areas directly impacting ecology (such as water management, clean energy, waste management, forest ecosystem and climate change), the same reflections are not visible in non-environmental areas (poverty, health, agriculture and gender), for which the indicators will yield mostly a compilation of governmental data.

Indicators for critical sectors like agriculture, gender, climate change and peace and security do not reveal anything about how sustainability is mapped – which, in fact, was to be the envisaged value addition that the SDG mapping was supposed to provide.

For instance, for the first goal - poverty reduction - the emergent indicators do not match the mandated targets at all. While Targets 1.4.1 and 1.4.2 talk about access to basic services and securing land rights, the indicators mapped by the government for these are entirely unrelated, focusing instead on financial inclusion. Although this government is proceeding commendably with financial inclusion, what that has to do with basic needs fulfilment – such that it includes community management for livelihood generation and the politicised issue of access to land rights – is anybody’s guess.

In fact, land rights, even within the context of the goal of gender equality, are also, inexplicably, limited to mapping wages and financial services – this despite the fact that women, particularly those from lower caste backgrounds and employed as agricultural labourers, have been the focus of access to land rights for quite some time now.

Similarly, for the second goal - food security and sustainable agriculture - simply mapping R&D in agriculture, or use of modern equipment (which does not make a distinction between sustainable and unsustainable agricultural inputs) or total cropped area does not offer an explanation about how farmer incomes will be mapped (which is the mandate of the SDG target).

The clear implication is that critical SDG indicators need to be more in sync with the socio-economic and political context that they are addressing, and failure to do will lead to a failure of SDG implementation.

This is particularly so in the case of socio-economically sensitive and vulnerable social groups like farmers, women and backward classes, where public policy cannot afford to be too sweeping or general. Taking the case of women as an example  – addressed through the SDGs' fifth goal – indicators for Target 5.5 talks about the number of women holding seats in parliament, state assemblies and local government – an indicator transposed directly from the target itself. This is insufficient from the point of view of long-term sustainability in the Indian context. To gauge the empowerment of women, it is important to see whether their political empowerment is also leading to their economic empowerment since the reality is that India is losing out economically due to low numbers of women in the workforce. Perhaps a better indicator would have been: proportion of women inducted in the formal workforce to the proportion of women elected to legislative and local government bodies, year-wise.

From these basic gaps and numerous more along similar lines, it is clear that an ideal form of indicator-mapping for such issues should have sought to map the lacunae in the legal system and how to monitor them in their delivery of these basic rights and needs. Its absence shows that India is still proceeding within a very conventional, dichotomised understanding of sustainability. This divorces the domain of law and politics from that of environment and development, making the latter the mainstay of technocracy. The dangerous and mounting trend of making policy increasingly data-driven instead of factoring in non-quantitative issues of human security will only further accelerate the relegation of environment to technocratic policy-making.

Breaking Silos
If, indeed, policy-making continues to relegate sustainability to the domain of technocracy, it will miss out on the transformations occurring in the socio-political system, where the next major war will most likely be over resources. Recent developments within India – land rights agitation, water wars, public health crises, mounting farmer suicides and recurrent drought in relatively well-off and greener states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu as also in the most backward regions like Bundelkhand - are indicative of this trend.

Unless policy-making can factor in these realities that are increasingly becoming key domestic political issues, India will miss the bus on SDG implementation.