See SDGs as a policy framework, not as a document

To start work, the Sustainable Development Goals first need to be popularised by the new government

By Amitabh Behar
Published: Friday 24 May 2019
See SDGs as a policy framework, not as a document
Illustration: Tarique Aziz Illustration: Tarique Aziz

The new government has to ensure that each one in the country is able to enjoy freedom and practices tolerance without fear. National security is no doubt significant, but it cannot be the country’s political narrative. India is riddled with problems such as extreme poverty, exploitation and inequalities, and does not need to look for enemies outside. The problems need to be dealt with on an urgent basis.

It is imperative that the concept of development is well understood. For example, in our human development index, we have set aside environment. How can development be holistic without the environment? The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer that complete framework.

In 2015, the United Nations set 17 goals for countries to achieve by 2030, and asked them to decide indicators for themselves. In September that year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that SDGs would be implemented with full strength and vigour.

Four years later, India does not even have a list of indicators approved by the Union cabinet. For the successful implementation of SDGs, a strong inter-ministerial coordination was essential. Nothing of that sort happened.

The NITI Aayog has been made the body to envision and oversee implementation of SDGs. It has tried to identify existing policies and relate them to targets. And it has mentioned the interlinking of rivers programme as one of them!

Those who have even a little understanding of environment know that interlinking rivers brings us devastation that in many ways nullifies the fundamental arguments for SDGs.

Further, NITI Aayog handed over Goal 16, which deals with human rights, to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). It is ironic given that mha controls internal security forces that have been widely accused of human rights violations. Clearly, paperwork was perfunctorily done without giving sincere thought to implementation.

In 2016-17, I met the chief secretaries of 15 states while working on SDGs. The first question they asked was what SDGs were. As many as 12 of them asked what their state would get from it.

A lot of noise has been made on SDGs, but nothing has really moved on ground as the chief secretaries are not serious about it. The problem is not political. I have worked on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as well.

People did not know about it till 2008-09, so an effort was made to popularise it. SDGs talk about changing the worldview, but how much has been written about it? Every September, tall claims are made about the work accomplished. The problem is that not much impetus has been given to inter-national agreements in India.

When Prime Minister Modi gave that speech in New York, it seemed the entire country was on the verge of joining an SDG revolution. But there was no follow-up action. The agenda was completely with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

Shashi Tharoor, who has had a long association with the UN and was chair of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, was not involved in SDG implementation. If even parliamentarians are not involved in the process, how will political interest or leadership on SDGs be created?

The larger question is India’s disconnect with the global processes. Politicians, intellectuals and common people are completely kept away from debate on international agreements. So, should such a significant process be directed by only MEA, or should all the ministries be involved?

During my meetings with local self-government groups such as panchayat bodies, it was clear that they too knew little about SDGs. Tremendous work is required at the panchayat level, as even the sarpanch does not know about the global goals.

The situation is no different with members of legislative assembly members. For example in Chhattisgarh, I was asked to train the new legislative assembly in the state. Sixty of the 90 MLAs who came for the training did not know what SDGs were. It is important for the new government to usher an SDG revolution if development is to be made.

The literacy mission could be a means to stay connected. But the country is so polarised at present that taking everyone along is difficult. SDGs could be a way to build solidarity and increase tolerance.

Goal 12 of SDGs says we not only have to reduce production, but consumption as well. It talks about making lifestyle changes such as not using air-conditioners and reducing the use of plastic.

Production patterns can be changed through green technologies but changing consumption pattern is not easy. It cannot change without a revolution. The challenge for the new government is to see SDGs not as a policy framework, but as a document that will chart the path towards organising a society, country and an economy that is sustainable.

(The author heads Oxfam India. He also contributed to “India Sustainable Development Goals: The Way Forward” published by Research and Information System for Developing Countries along with the United Nations)

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