The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are proof that the conversation on the intersectionality between economic, social and environmental change has finally come of age and is now hard to ignore. These 17 global goals, along with their 169 targets, are not just transformative in their ambition for the last person in the queue. They are in fact inviting us to participate in the tectonic shift in development thinking, to step out of our comfort zones to examine new solutions and new ways of doing business. And let's remember, these goals were generated through four years of participation of millions of people around the world and not by a bunch of experts huddled in a basement.
If the SDGs are likely to drive India's national and state planning and development processes till 2030, are our legislators prepared to lead from the front?
However, in India, the discussion on pathways to achieve the goals have, over the past year, become the domain of central- and state-level bureaucrats who, perhaps because of competing priorities, have shown little ability and inclination to challenge the status quo, devise new partnerships and generate solutions. Irrespective of our opinion of the calibre of elected leaders in India, it is they who know the pulse of the people, it is they who are accountable and have the ability to see challenges and solutions beyond silos. If the SDGs are likely to drive India's national and state planning and development processes till 2030, are our legislators prepared and willing to wrest centrestage, to lead from the front and take charge of the show on behalf of the people of India?
Exactly a year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked the moral might of Mahatma Gandhi as he opened his speech at the UN General Assembly, "One must care about the world one will not see," he quoted. He then endorsed the General Assembly Resolution on the SDGs with an unprecedented note of ownership, saying "Today, much of India's development agenda is mirrored in the Sustainable Development Goals."
Even though the SDG Resolution assigns the key oversight function to national parliaments, in India a high level parliamentary mechanism is yet to be conceptualized. Paragraph 45 of the SDG General Assembly Resolution states clearly that "We acknowledge the essential role of national parliaments through their enactment of legislation and adoption of budgets and their role in ensuring accountability for the effective implementation of our commitments". The SDGs reflect the will and aspirations of the people and the state stands morally obliged to fulfil these commitments.
That said, experts continue to quarrel about certain aspects of the SDGs -- yes, they aren't perfect. Some worry that the SDGs continue to be a sell-out to the concept of growth as the fulcrum for development. Others are concerned about the subliminal role of the private sector written into the fine print. Objects, people and places of inherent value aren't ever perfect. They are what we make of them through application. The SDGs reflect the complexity of the world today and in the future, warts and all. It doesn't present a utopian leap into the ideal, but incremental changes with the institutions, systems, tools and people among whom we inhabit. The question isn't whether the SDGs are perfect but whether we are ready for the systems approach they are inviting us to undertake.
The question isn't whether the SDGs are perfect but whether we are ready for the systems approach they are inviting us to undertake.
Sample this transformational target articulated in the SDGs – "By 2030, progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average." Even a few years ago, it was unthinkable that all nations of this world would sign up to such a target and set themselves the goal of "reducing inequality within and among countries". Note the turn of phrase and its power.
"Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws" – this target is representative of the struggles and victories of women thus far and the seemingly intractable challenges that continue to hold back millions of women every day.
The starting date for the SDGs was 1 January 2016. However, everyone except Parliament and state legislatures seem to be tossing around, planning their implementation. Niti Aayog has mapped the core central schemes against the SDGs, an important exercise to assess the investments being made towards achieving the goals. This exercise reveals the impact of fiscal consolidation which has led to the reduced heft of central schemes and hence of Niti Aayog. State government bureaucrats are formulating state plans based on the SDGs, which will in all likelihood culminate in a 15-year plan to be adopted by Niti Aayog. However, it is worth noting that Niti Aayog isn't the erstwhile Planning Commission, which was backed with the heft of central funds through various schemes. With the 14th Finance Commission recommendations, states will have more money to run the show and have a faint dotted line connection with Niti Aayog.
State governments need to be mobilized to both understand and own the SDG targets, and engage in implementation accordingly -- central schemes will not suffice to achieve the targets.
Oddly enough, RIS, a think-tank under the Ministry of External Affairs, seems to have cornered a role for itself as well, doing what a think tank can -- which is to invite speakers and organize consultations. A couple of national consultations have been held whose reports were not available at the time of writing this article. According to their website, some papers have been commissioned. And the SDG document has been translated into Bengali and Malayalam (yes, Hindi seems to be missing!). While the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) plays the role of an interlocutor between the government and multilateral organizations, and the RIS did seem to have a role in the SDG negotiations, it is yet to be clarified what role it has in planning the implementation given its remit within the MEA structure.
However, elected representatives from Parliament and legislatures seem to be missing from this exercise. Have they even dived into the SDG document and ruminate over its implications? Have state legislatures understood the medium- and long-term planning needs to achieve the SDGs?
The German parliament has established a Parliamentary Advisory Council on SDGs. Members of Parliament in Zambia have formed an SDG caucus. In Pakistan, an SDG Task Force was established to promote debates, engage, and increase awareness of MPs on the SDGs. What about us?
The PM needs to constitute a Parliamentary Forum on SDGs which can be tasked with providing direction, oversight and monitoring to the implementation process.
In this first year of implementation, the Prime Minister needs to constitute a Parliamentary Forum on SDGs which can be tasked with providing direction, oversight and monitoring to the implementation process. State governments need to be mobilized to both understand and own the SDG targets, and engage in implementation accordingly -- central schemes will not suffice to achieve the targets. Given that India barely spends 7% of GDP on the social sector (France spends about 30% and even Mexico, 8% of its GDP on social sector), the elected leaders in states share equal accountability. State-level monitoring forums consisting of involved stakeholders other than just MLAs need to be set up with reporting lines to the Parliamentary Forum.
Parliament, along with state legislatures, are the only institutions that are mandated to view a citizen in her entirety, without breaking up her needs and aspirations into bureaucratic silos as ministries and departments are designed to. Reiterating that we have no option but to succeed, the UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon said, "Ours can be the first generation to end poverty -- and the last generation to address climate change before it is too late."