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Thursday, April 25, 2019
N Chandra Mohan is an economics and business commentator.
NEW DELHI, Oct 8 2015 (IPS) - India’s stance on sustainable development goals is evolving as there are differing voices on what should be done. Over the next 15 years, the global development agenda will be preoccupied with the ambitious challenge of achieving 17 SDGs and 169 targets. The SDGs follow the Millennium Development Goals which were conceptualized as a set of eight goals on diverse development dimensions including poverty alleviation, gender equality, health and environmental sustainability. The buzz in the development community is that as the relative success of MDGs is a result of China’s super-rapid growth, the relative success of the SDGs will be because of India.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, for its part, appears confident in meeting these development goals. Prime Minister Modi told the UN General Assembly that many of the SDGs – which form the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – are already being implemented through flagship programmes of the government such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (for better sanitation), Make in India, Digital India, Skill India, Smart Cities and Jan Dhan Yojana (banking the unbanked). He even mentioned his focus on the Blue Revolution, which includes the prosperity and sustainable use of marine wealth and blue skies. India’s development agenda thus is mirrored in the SDGs.
However, Mrs Sindhushree Khullar, CEO of NITI Aayog, a successor to the Planning Commission that has been tasked with the implementation of SDGs, candidly indicated some challenges facing the country in this regard. She argued that while they are indeed formidable in achieving 169 targets, in the 12th five-year plan (2012-17) there were only 25 indicators, many of which could not be updated due to data problems. At a consultation with stakeholders on SDGs, organised by the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) in New Delhi, she wondered whether the country could do all 169.
Between now and 2030, at the mid-point of 2022, India would be celebrating 75 years of independence when the objective of providing health, nutrition, housing, education and drinking water for all, along with road and digital connectivity, would hopefully be fulfilled. The sceptical voice of NITI Aayog’s CEO ought to be heeded as it is well recognized that the country has had a mixed track-record in implementing MDGs or even hitting the modest domestic socio-economic targets set in the 12th five-year plan. Mrs Khullar knows what she talking about as NITI Aayog has already undertaken the mid-term appraisal of this plan.
In sharp contrast, a growth-can-fix-SDGs stand was outlined by the vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, Dr Arvind Panagariya. Speaking at an event organised by RIS and Permanent Mission of India in New York ahead of the special session of UN General Assembly, he argued that “We simply cannot overstate the importance of robust economic growth, which in turn depends on well-functioning infrastructure and policies that enhance productivity. Without it, none of our objectives, be it eradication of poverty, empowerment of women, provision of basic services or even protection of environment and reversing climate change, would be possible by 2030.”
India’s success in sustaining high growth and therefore poverty alleviation will contribute in substantial measure to the success of the SDGs, added Dr Panagariya. Improving the lives of 1.4 billion Indians would make a major dent in the goal of improving the lives of all humanity. Besides the example of fast-growing China in reducing poverty and achieving MDGs, other erstwhile developing countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore also relied on faster growth to eliminate poverty within a single generation. Social programs and social spending in these countries came later in terms of sequencing of development strategy.
If achieving SDGs through growth is India’s policy stance, it appears to be on fragile foundations. The latest IMF data show the country overtaking China with 7.5 per cent growth in 2016-17. The big assumption is of a Modi-dividend on growth. In other words, the formation of a majority government in India in May 2014 is expected to result in crucial policy reforms that can revive investor sentiment and boost growth. But this reforms-driven spurt in growth hasn’t materialised until now and there is little or no basis to infer that India will continue to grow by 7.5 per cent indefinitely. Extrapolating from the past to the future is only the stuff of statistical dreams.
India experienced 8 per cent growth over a full decade but that did not help in achieving MDGs. The country is on track for meeting the target of poverty reduction, reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and reducing gender disparity in primary education, but lags behind on reduction in hunger, universal primary education, reduction in under-5 mortality rates, reduction in maternal mortality rates, reduction in the spread of malaria and other diseases and basic provision of safe water and sanitation, according to India Country Report 2015 on MDGs brought out by the Ministry of Statistics and Policy Implementation.
Robust economic growth will not help in hitting the SDGs either. For all the talk of flagship programmes doing the needful, the NDA government has savagely cut back on social sector spending in its latest union budget for 2015-16. Public spending on health is only 1 per cent of GDP. The provision of accessible, affordable and effective health services to all is difficult to deliver under these circumstances. The swingeing spending cuts affect universal primary education, especially schooling the girl child in various states of the country. Despite slower economic growth, Bangladesh has done a lot more in this regard.
A conscious policy focus on women will help India realise the first seven SDGs that complete the unfinished agenda on MDGs. More than growth per se a focus on redistribution will ensure meeting other goals such as 8, 9 and 10 that cover aspects such as inclusiveness and jobs, infrastructure and industrialization and distribution. The final seven goals lay down the framework for sustainability spanning urbanization, consumption and production, climate change, resources and environment, peace and justice and means of implementation and global partnership for it. Growth is not the magic bullet for achieving these goals either.
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