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EXCLUSIVE: India trailing in meeting Sustainable Development Goal targets


The summary of the Sustainable Development Report 2021 defining the ‘Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals’ remarks that the current Covid-19 pandemic has been a setback for sustainable development across the globe.

By Salam Rajesh

India stood at a low 121st ranking with a 60.1 score out of 160 countries in the 2021 SDG Index score. The SDG Index is an assessment of each country’s overall performance on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, giving equal weight to each goal. The SDG Index score signifies a country’s position between the worst possible outcome and the best, or target outcome. Finland’s overall index score (85.9) suggests it is, on average, 86 percent of the way to the best possible outcome across the 17 Goals. As in previous editions, three Nordic countries top the 2021 SDG Index: Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. All countries in the top 20 apart from Croatia are OECD countries.

The summary of the Sustainable Development Report 2021 defining the ‘Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals’ remarks that the current Covid-19 pandemic has been a setback for sustainable development across the globe. The report outlines that for the first time since the adoption of the SDGs in 2015, the “global average SDG Index score for 2020 has decreased from the previous year: a decline driven to a large extent by increased poverty rates and unemployment following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic”. The report hastens to add that the current pandemic has impacted all three dimensions of sustainable development, namely, economic, social, and environmental.

The interesting aspect of the report’s analysis is that “low-income developing countries (LIDCs) lack the fiscal space to finance emergency response and investment led recovery plans aligned with the SDGs”. This broadly suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the “limited capacity of LIDCs to tap market financing. While the governments of high-income countries have borrowed heavily in response to the pandemic, LIDCs have been unable to do so because of their lower market credit worthiness. The major short-term implication of the difference in fiscal space of high-income and low-income countries is that rich countries are likely to recover from the pandemic more quickly than poor countries”.

The Performance by Indicator analysis for each country is interestingly varied, with several countries far below the desired targets set in the Sustainable Development Goals. For India, the reading for SDG4 (Quality Education) shows a decreasing trend, as is a similar trend in achieving SDG5 (Gender Equality). The performance index indicates certain level of stagnation in achieving SDG2 (Zero Hunger), a major challenge area where the Government is faltering in preventing undernourishment among the young age group and the lower strata of the general population.

The slightly sober news is in achieving SDG1 (No Poverty) where the performance index shows moderately improving status, and this is another area of major challenge for the Government. There is some good news for the country where the performance index in achieving SDG3 (Good Health and Well-being) indicates the Government is on track in meeting some of the targets set in the Goals. Whereas, there are also some grey areas remaining stagnant, as for instance in the detection and prevention of cancer, tuberculosis, traffic deaths, and child care, while there is decreasing trend in the overall ‘subjective well-being’ of the general population.

The country shows improved concerns on meeting SDG13 (Climate action), particularly in reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement productions. On the other hand, there is decreasing trend in many of the sectors outlined in achieving SDG11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) although these are indicated as major challenges for the Government. Some of the sectors of concern are: (i) Proportion of urban population living in slums, (ii) Annual mean concentration of particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5) (μg/m3), and (iii) Access to improved water source and piped water supply.

There is equally a downward trend in meeting several targets outlined in achieving SDG16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) where the performance index indicates the Government is trailing in meeting targets. A major concern is the downward trend in addressing freedom of the Press, as is being witnessed in the country presently where the Press has come under tremendous pressures from within and outside of the Government. There are even cases of journalists being booked under the National Security Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for openly criticizing the Government on its policies.

There are also other concerns lacking in achieving SDG16, where downward trends are observed in addressing cases of unsentenced detainees in prison and in ensuring safety of persons walking alone late in the night as when returning home from work on night shifts. This particularly refers to women working in cities on late night shifts, and returning home at odd hours. India’s performance index, too, indicates decreasing trend in addressing property rights, the rating being extremely low. This would refer to addressing property rights for compensation due to displacements by eviction for developmental projects, such as, for highway expansion, railway and metro line extension, airport expansion, new townships, and setting up industrial complexes.

The worst case scenario for the country is in achieving SDG17 (Partnership for the Goals) where the performance index for India shows stagnation with a very low margin on Government spending on health and education, which is indicated as a major challenge for the Government. This may imply a failing structure of the Government in achieving targets towards improvements in the health and education sectors across the country, particularly in the rural setting. There is equally stagnation in India’s outreach with other countries in achieving partnership for the Goals, indicating a low rating on this sector.

India’s standing on achieving SDG8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) shows extremely poor performance with low rating in some sectors, such as, in addressing ‘Fundamental labor rights are effectively guaranteed’. This may indicate instances of unrests in the labor sector across the country during the past few years where mill and factory workers launched agitations on several occasions, demanding commensurate wages, safety measures and retirement benefits for the worker families, not to speak of harassments in work place and intimidation by company officers.

There is also stagnation in addressing unemployment in the country, featured with a low rating. Unemployment incidence had increased manifold during the current Covid-19 pandemic, with millions of workers out of job and displaced countrywide. The process is accentuated by the number of worker migrants converging in urban areas from their rural settings as unemployment mounts up with extensive impacts in the farm and agricultural sectors. Market failure for agricultural produces has landed farmers in dire straits, and farm workers are consequently forced to migrate to cities in seeking employment.

The overall picture for the country as outlined in the Sustainable Development Report 2021, therefore, is indicative of the Government mechanism not functioning in tandem in all aspects of ‘sustainable development’ as targeted by the United Nations. This does call for a review of the national policies and targets set in achieving sustained developments particularly in the health, education and labor sectors, and in ensuring social justice and freedom of the Press.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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