India and SDGs: Hues of red, green, yellow and orange

Moving towards SDGs is in conformity with what India wishes to do in its pursuit of progress and development. The nation is far better positioned than many countries.
Soumyadip Sinha
Soumyadip Sinha

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have a nested structure. There are 17 broad goals, made precise through targets and monitored through indicators. As adopted in September 2015, there were 169 targets and 232 indicators. I think the number of targets and indicators is excessive. With that number, how do you monitor anything?

Be that as it may, a review of indicators goes on within the UN system, and there will be another review in 2025. For India, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) has a national indicator framework. All this was meant to be achieved by 2030. But Covid and subsequent geopolitical tensions have knocked everything for a six.

Jeffrey Sachs and his colleagues do a global SDG report. Let me quote from the June 2022 report, the latest: “The war in Ukraine and other military conflicts are humanitarian tragedies. They also impact prosperity and social outcomes throughout the rest of the world, including exacerbating poverty, food insecurity, and access to affordable energy. The climate and biodiversity crises amplify the impact of these crises. At the time of this writing, in early May 2022, the outcome of the war in Ukraine and other military conflicts, but also of the health crisis, remain highly uncertain.

Yet, it is clear that these multiple and simultaneous crises have diverted policy attention and priorities away from medium and long-term goals such as the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement: a shift of focus towards short-term issues that threatens to slow down or even stall the adoption of ambitious and credible national and international plans but also squeezes available international funding for sustainable development. … The average SDG Index score slightly declined in 2021, partly due to slow or non-existent recovery in poor and vulnerable countries. Multiple and overlapping health and security crises have led to a reversal in SDG progress.

Performance on SDG 1 (No Poverty) and SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) remain below pre-pandemic levels in many low-income countries (LICs) and lower-middle-income countries (LMICs). This is a major setback, especially considering that before the pandemic, over the period 2015–2019, the world was progressing on the SDGs at a rate of 0.5 points per year (which was also too slow to reach the 2030 deadline), with poorer countries making greater gains than rich countries. Progress on climate and biodiversity goals is also too slow, especially in rich countries.” This makes for dismal reading. But most will sense the statements are true.

However, it is also necessary to mention that India is far better positioned than many countries. The dashboard classifies goals into four categories—green means “on track or maintaining SDG achievement”, yellow means “moderately improving”, orange means “stagnating”, and red means “declining”. That colour coding is a broad brush. Within it, improvement and deterioration are both possible. India shows up as green for responsible consumption and production and climate action. For both, there have been improvements. Yellow is for quality education, where improvements are stagnating. Orange is for no poverty, affordable and clean energy, and reduced inequalities. For reduced inequalities, data aren’t available.

For poverty and affordable and clean energy, while both are in orange, there have been improvements. The others—zero hunger, good health and well-being, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation and infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities, life below water, life on land, peace, justice and strong institutions, and partnerships for the goals—are all red. But within a red coding, there may be improvement or deterioration. For instance, there are improvements in decent work and economic growth, and industry, innovation and infrastructure. Sustainable cities and communities show a deteriorating trend, and the other red ones are just flat.

This is an external assessment and may not necessarily conform to the perceptions of those who live in India. Typically, any such assessment is based on indicators with objective data or subjective responses to questionnaires. Take, for instance, the goal of SDG 16, peace, justice and strong institutions. Indicators are homicides per 1,00,000 population, unsentenced detainees, percentage of population who feel safe walking at night, property rights, birth registrations, corruption perception index, child labour, exports of major conventional weapons, press freedom index, and access to, and affordability of, justice. As should be obvious, homicides and unsentenced detainees are hard data. They shouldn’t be treated on par with something like a press freedom index or corruption perception index or perceptions about who feels safe working at night. How does one quantify access to, and affordability of, justice? The ones in our national indicator framework are much more precise, without subjectivity. For instance, for corruption, we have something like “Persons arrested in total cognizable crime cases under offences under Prevention of Corruption Act and related sections of Indian Penal Code (IPC)”.

Three points should still be made. First, moving towards SDGs is in conformity with what India wishes to do in its pursuit of progress and development. (Covid led to a temporary dislocation, such as in the release of undertrial prisoners. Data used by the external assessment are for 2019.) Second, there isn’t much point in quibbling about sources used for such external assessments. Yes, they are often subjective and unsatisfactory. But sometimes, that’s because we don’t release timely data.

Third, what happens to India is an aggregate of what happens at the level of states. All too often, the red areas are there. Niti Aayog scores states based on an SDG index. It is easy to figure out which states are pulling India down—those below India’s performance, for example, Bihar. However, there is heterogeneity within states too. In the past, I have mentioned UNDP’s Human Development Reports (HDRs). Following that template, states used to bring out state-level HDRs. Those have stopped now. They brought out the variance within states and between districts.

Those state-level HDRs have now been rendered superfluous by dashboards, which bring out advanced and lagging districts within a state. The Aspirational Districts Programme (ADP) was launched in 2018 to target 112 relatively underdeveloped districts, and external validation shows there have been improvements. The bottom line is simple. As a consequence of Covid, it isn’t a question of India losing two years at the all-India level. So have states and districts. It is time to refocus.

Bibek Debroy

Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM

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