Two days before the heads of over 150 countries meet at the United Nations headquarters in New York to adopt a new set of global goals on ending poverty, hunger and inequality, there is an unprecedented emphasis on the role of India. Less on account of its position as an emerging leader and more by the size of its footprint on the developing world, it is apparent to all that if the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals have to show measurable results around the world’s poorest nations by the time the target year of 2030 rolls around, everything hinges on whether India is able to successfully implement the goals.
From diplomats to economists and from civil society players to UN officials, everybody associated with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Summit to be held from September 25 to 27 readily cites the China analogy: The relative successes of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) declared and adopted in 2000 owe pretty much everything to China’s runaway success on growth parameters in the same period. And, everyone concedes, China wasn’t really implementing the MDGs. China was merely setting its own growth trajectory.
That’s one of the reasons that summiteers in New York are now enthusiastic about various Indian leaders’s declaration that the current government is already implementing 11 of the 17 sustainable development goals through its various showcase programmes. Examples include, of course, the Swachh Bharat campaign that ties in neatly with the goal on sanitation, the solar energy push that matches the SDG on energy and more.
Helen Clark, UNDP administrator, called India’s role in the eventual outcome of this 2030 agenda “pivotal”. “Without India, the world cannot achieve the SDGs,” she said at an event in New York this week. NITI Aayog vice-chairperson Arvind Panagariya, speaking at the same event, lauded the Indian mission for ensuring that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s priorities “now occupy centerstage in the SDG agenda”.
The SDGs themselves are a set of 17 desirables, ranging from ending poverty and hunger to sustainable industrialisation. They were formulated as the ‘post-2015’ agenda, signifying the era after the year the Millennium Development Goals ran their course. The 17 goals and the 169 targets written into them will be adopted this Friday at the UN Sustainable Development Summit, an event toplining the historical 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly that was opened earlier this month.
While India’s success in implementing the goals will no doubt have a direct correlation with the overall success of the 2030 agenda, Indian negotiators’ role in championing the interests of the global South has also won plaudits. Towards the end of negotiations for the SDG document, the G77 nations hotly opposed the developed world’s attempt to dilute a goal-oriented Means of Implementation (MOI) section, which include objectives on official development assistance (ODA), other finance-related subjects, including resource mobilisation to implement the goals, technology transfer to developing nations, capacity building, trade and more.
The ODA is no longer key for countries such as India and other BRICS nations — now donors themselves — but ODA will continue to play a central role in achieving the goals in the poorest countries. The ODA commitments from the developed world have traditionally not been met, real ODA numbers have actually slowed down in recent years and the quality of foreign aid, especially in technology transfer, was the subject of much mistrust during the negotiations.
As developed countries attempted to pull the plug on the goal-specific Means of Implementation, Indian negotiators were among the lead in ensuring the impasse ended favourably for the developing world.
There are also enormous expectations on India’s likely role in taking a lead in transfer of technology to developing countries. As a technology powerhouse, whether on ICT or other low cost innovations in industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to energy, India is being viewed as “an engine of the south” as UN Resident Coordinator in India Yuri Afanasiev put it.
So is it a cinch for India?
Panagariya has indicated that India’s approach would be to focus on growth, acknowledging that the “decade of 8 per cent growth” had led to some of India’s biggest social schemes succeeding. Citing the examples of South Korea and China, Panagariya said the answer to how to achieve the targets would have to be in growth. The NITI Aayog is set to be the nodal body for the implementation of the SDGs in India, and Panagariya’s stress on high growth prompted questions on the growth versus sustainability dichotomy and on whether growth would ensure equitable progress. There are other fears among Indian activists who have been working now on the draft of the SDGs. Amitabh Behar of National Foundation for India, said that prioritisation could leave out some of the goals. Most likely to be left out would be Goal 10 on inequalities and Goal 16 on governance. “There needs to be citizen ownership of the goals, among people, among local self governments and upward,” he said.
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