As the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in India, Yuri Afanasiev is passionate about development issues in the country. Since taking charge in July 2015, he has been closely associated with the several strides India has been taking, whether in environment, health, agriculture or rural development.

Prior to his current position, Afanasiev served as the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2010-2015) and in Croatia (2005-2010). Joining the UN from private business, Afanasiev started his development career in Cuba, where he served from 1988 to 1990.

He has spent over 14 years in various disaster and conflict duty stations.
Afanasiev outlined in an extensive interview with ASHA RAMACHANDRAN the challenges faced by India in meeting its development goals, particularly in terms of land degradation and climate change, as well as the achievements made. Excerpts:

Q: How important are SDGs to India and how important is India to the global success of SDGs?

A: India’s place in the SDGs is uniquely important. I daresay it is more important than China’s was to MDGs, which came before. We estimate that India has met roughly 30-60 per cent of the target. But the good news is that India is developing rapidly.

We believe it’s going to continue growing like that, at least for a decade or more. If you apply simple arithmetics, by 2050 India may be the world’s biggest economy even though the level of consumption, or GNI per capita, of India may be lower than many rich countries. If you take GDP in per capita terms, India is already No. 3.

India has already taken roughly 160-170 million people out of poverty over the last 15 years. So, there’s quite a bit of positive dynamics as far as India is concerned. But there are also concerns. The big threats, I think, are inequality and climate change. With climate change, the threats are, I believe, in water and land, something that India does not have in abundance.

Q: How do you think the focus on SDGs is going to change/move the development trajectory in a more positive direction? What do you see as challenges in India?

A: India has a huge population. It’s still a great land mass but compared to population size, India will be the densest country, if not already, certainly by 2030. So there are big issues and big challenges. But overall, the outlook is very positive.

India by turn of faith is timing its ascension. At the moment it can make technological leaps. Today, there are innovations, technological developments which will allow India to make the leap without retrofitting old infrastructure and make India’s ascension a lot cheaper and more effective than any other country.

Q: Where do you think should be the focus?

A: That’s where I don’t have such good news. The focus should be everywhere. That’s the complexity of the institutional framework. In my opinion, on the national capital side, the biggest threat is water and climate change.

On the human capital side it is women and education. Those four issues are where I would place the challenges. Not because they are the most important but because they are the most complicated.

Q: Land degradation remains a major environmental problem in India, even if under-recognised. Why do you think it has not received the attention it deserves?

A: For many decades, while India was very supportive of the UN conventions, including the Rio convention, it was in solidarity with its brothers in Africa. India never applied it to itself. In a way it was because the branding was wrong.

We called it Convention to Combat Desertification. In India desertification is linked only to Rajasthan. What India didn’t appreciate until very recently, and we’re talking months, was that one third of its arable land was in this condition.

The biggest problem is agriculture. India had tremendous success from Green Revolution. The primary target there was feeding the people. But the problem was the land use was sub-optimal.

So, while the goal of feeding the people and food security was achieved, it was at a certain cost. So now, modestly estimating, one-third of the arable land is degraded. Our estimation is that 100 million hectares overall ~ agriculture and non-agriculture land ~ is degraded.

The other issue is extractive industry, such as coal mines. There was never an accountability approach. They took the coal out and moved to the next location. Thirdly, there was some deforestation. But here, there is a piece of good news. For the first time, I think last year, India registered an increase in forested area. The fourth issue is urbanisation ~ urban slums and land around cities degraded by construction.

Combining the four factors, India has a problem. Because, potentially India has 100 million hectares of land that can be put to good use or reforested. Meanwhile, more land is degraded every year. So, the loss to India’s GDP due to degraded land is 16 billion dollars.

To put this degraded land to use, one is agriculture, but better agriculture. The potential is enormous. The second thing is build renewable energy parks ~ solar and wind. Third is reforestation of the land. The fourth area is urban development. Three out of these four options are commercially viable. It means government does not need to invest public money into this.

Q: Tell us a little about UNCCD and the progress made via this convention to address the issue of desertification/land degradation.

A: We are currently thinking, with the government and the private sector, on laws that would incentivise arrest of rapid land degradation through scalable commercial models.

There are some good signs. Some of the schemes being rolled out under the Rural Development Mission and others are already thinking about it. But I think it’s the focus that needs to be there. Because the quicker you recover that land and put it back into production, the better it would be. So, we think it’s a low-hanging fruit.

I’m glad to say that our counterparts in the government recognise the numbers, recognise the problem and agree more or less with us. This is why India has signed up to the LDN (land degradation neutrality) targets.

Interestingly, we are creating a unique commercial fund to incentivise countries to move forward on land degradation recovery. India may also benefit financially from it as the problem is so big.

The Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) has also come out strongly in support of this. The trick is to find a formula of incentives, that sweet spot in the policy, because land is the biggest treasure for India.

Q: India has been a signatory to the UNCCD for several years. Are there any new developments that promise substantive action?

A: India has demonstrated its intent. We are working together to help India set its LDN target. Within 6-9 months we can go through some policy exploration options and even apply to the big fund (LDN fund). We have identified the most vulnerable states ~ Punjab, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. We will select pilot projects and watch.

We’re not starting from scratch. There are farmers out there who are already conscious of it. The issue is scaling it up to a commercial level so that it starts making a difference. Because at this point you are moving backward as more land is being degraded every year than is being saved.

Q: With India being a signatory to the Paris Agreement and climate change a major issue for the country, what do you see India’s role in taking the agreement forward?

A: With the political commitment I have seen so far, everyone is saying we can achieve some of the voluntary commitments made at the Paris Agreement earlier.

So, we are entering into discussion with India to ratchet up its target and thus show a very positive example to the rest of the world. I’m not saying the responsibility should be only on countries like India and China, but why not show a positive way if it benefits you?

Q: What is India’s leadership role in climate change issues?

A: Last week we spoke with the Prime Minister and other leaders and officials on the issue. We are trying to put together a strategic partnership between the UN and India on climate change, urbanisation and innovation. The ambition and political commitment I see is very encouraging.

Realistically, as an economist, I see that India does not have a choice. In a way that is an incentive. India needs to move towards a circular economy very, very quickly. It’s a challenge but there is no option.

So this combination of factors makes me optimistic about the positive dynamics in the economy and the commitment of not only the government but all the people.

In a perverse way, it’s an optimal combination. I also say the development solutions of tomorrow are being born in India today because of this unique combination of factors.