Why India Could Make or Break the Success of SDGs
October 14, 2015
Speaking at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York last month, Prime Minister Modi expressed the Indian government’s commitment to the new Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), which replace the Millennium Development Goals that expired in 2015. Consisting of 17 goals and 169 targets that member states must strive to achieve by 2030, they are arguably the most comprehensive list of global goals the world has ever committed to.
Elected nearly a year ago on the agenda of “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas” or “development with all, and for all,” Prime Minister Modi and his government have been quick to stress the convergence between the SDGs and the country’s national development goals. Indeed, it is widely agreed that India will play a leading role in determining the relative success or failure of the SDGs. It is not hard to see why.
In sheer size and scale, India’s development challenges are immense. India accounts for nearly a third of the world’s 1.2 billion poor and continues to struggle to provide access to basic public services – clean air, water, food, healthcare, and education for its population. Despite an economy that has registered an annual average growth rate of 6-8 percent over the last few decades, India’s social development indices punch well below many low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Today, 1 million children below the age of five continue to perish annually due to acute malnutrition while 44,000 women succumb to death from childbirth. Notably, between 2000-2015, India made limited progress toward achieving the MDGs. Out of the eight original targets, India achieved only four, failing to meet critical targets on reducing hunger, reducing infant and maternal mortality, and providing access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
Some of the challenges in implementing the SDGs have already been expressed by officials and civil society experts in the country. It is increasingly evident that developing countries such as India will need to rely on their own resources to finance the SDGs. From the perspective of the Modi government, economic growth is a necessary pre-condition for social redistribution and sustainable development. However, this approach is not without its critics. In the past few months, the government, while initiating a slew of ambitious reforms and programs to boost economic growth, manufacturing, and jobs, has also cut social sector expenditures by nearly 20 percent in areas such as education, health, and women’s empowerment. This runs counter to the approach of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government that invested heavily in large, nationally sponsored social development schemes including the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme, the National Rural Health Mission, and the National Rural Livelihoods Mission etc. However, as India’s development indicators illustrate, economic growth and social sector spending alone are not sufficient conditions for inclusive and sustainable development.
Even as economists and policy-makers wrangle over the approach, few would disagree that if India is to achieve the SDGs in the next 15 years, greater efforts will be needed to tie growth-generating inputs and activities more clearly with social development outputs and indices. In order to do this, the government will need to collect and generate better quality data and information, which is currently lacking. It will also need to develop monitoring and evaluation mechanisms and tools to benchmark and track progress across different sectors.
Lastly, from a governance perspective, while it is encouraging that the prime minister and national leadership have expressed their commitment to the SDGs, given India’s federal structure, the government will need to adopt a more decentralized, bottom-up approach toward implementing and achieving the goals of the SDGs. Specifically, it will need to invest and build more intensively on the efforts of state and local governments who are at the frontline of delivering basic goods and services. Civil society organizations and the media also have a key role to play as social change agents and champions serving to support and enhance government efforts in key areas. Given the funding constraints, support from the private sector through investments in areas such as health, education, sanitation, and women’s empowerment will be critical to the government’s efforts.
The challenges before India in achieving the SDGs are immense. The Indian government will need to find ways to work creatively in partnership with different stakeholders to harness their latent energy, capacity, talent, resources, and innovation. There are already positive examples and successes that India can draw from, such as the successful eradication of poliomyelitis in 2014 and the achievement of universal school enrollment. These were made possible by strong national-level leadership and support as well as state-level collaborations with civil society and other stakeholders. For a country of the size and complexity of India, such a decentralized approach to addressing the SDGs will be essential.
Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in India. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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