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SDG Challenges

The UN SDG Report 2019 painted a gloomy picture, saying that more action was required to achieve Sustainable Development Goals: the goal to end extreme poverty by 2030 was not likely to be achieved with 6 per cent of the world population projected to remain in extreme poverty even in 2030; global hunger was on the rise, with 82.1 crore persons being undernourished in 2017 as against 78.4 crore in 2015.


The UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the agenda “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” in 2015, which incorporated seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be achieved by 2030.

The SDGs aimed at ending poverty and related deprivations, improving health and education, reducing inequality, spurring economic growth, simultaneously tackling climate change and preserving oceans and forests. Each Sustainable Development Goal has 8–12 targets, and each target has 1–4 indicators that measure progress in reaching the targets.

Globally, the achievement of SDGs is monitored by the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development – a part of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The UN Statistics Division launched the Global SDG Indicators Data Platform in September 2021. This platform allows users to search and download data on 210 of the 231 global SDG indicators.

Niti Aayog is the nodal agency for achieving and monitoring Sustainable Development Goals in India. Annually, since 2018, Niti Aayog publishes the SDG India Index, which analyses the State-wise and goal-wise achievement of SDGs.

The UN SDG Report 2019 painted a gloomy picture, saying that more action was required to achieve Sustainable Development Goals: the goal to end extreme poverty by 2030 was not likely to be achieved with 6 per cent of the world population projected to remain in extreme poverty even in 2030; global hunger was on the rise, with 82.1 crore persons being undernourished in 2017 as against 78.4 crore in 2015.

The report pointed out that at least half of the world’s population lacked essential health services, more than half of the world’s children did not meet standards in reading and mathematics, and women continued to face disadvantages and discrimination everywhere.

Further, the natural environment was deteriorating at an alarming rate: sea levels were rising; ocean acidification was accelerating; the past four years were the warmest on record; ten lakh plant and animal species were at risk of extinction, and land degradation continued unchecked. Some positive trends were also reported; the under-5 mortality rate fell by 49 per cent between 2000 and 2017, immunizations saved millions of lives, and the vast majority of the world’s population now had access to electricity.

The Covid-19 pandemic wiped out earlier gains in achieving Sustainable Development Goals, by less-developed countries. The UN SDG Report 2020 pessimistically pointed out:

* An estimated 7.1 crore people were being pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020, the first rise in global poverty since 1998.

* About 160 crore workers in the informal economy ~ half the global workforce ~ faced underemployment and unemployment due to the pandemic, with their incomes falling by 60 per cent.

* Worldwide, more than 100 crore slum dwellers risked infection by Covid-19, because of lack of adequate housing, no running water, shared toilets, little or no waste management systems, overcrowded public transport and limited access to healthcare facilities.

* Women and children were most adversely affected by the pandemic. Disruption in health and vaccination services and limited access to diet and nutrition services were likely to cause lakhs of additional under-5 deaths and tens of thousands of additional maternal deaths in 2020.

A surge in domestic violence against women and children was seen worldwide. School closures kept 90 per cent of students worldwide (157 crores) out of school and caused over 37 crore children to miss school meals. Most students had no access to remote learning because of lack of access to computers and the internet.

Pandemic induced poverty put children at much greater risk of child labour, child marriage and child trafficking; global gains in reducing child labour were likely to be reversed for the first time in 20 years. The UN SDG Report 2021, is depressingly similar to the 2020 Report, with apprehensions expressed in the earlier Report coming true. The 2021 Report noted that the global extreme poverty rate rose for the first time in over 20 years, and around 12 crore people were pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020.

Education suffered; an additional 10 crore children fell below the minimum reading proficiency level, wiping out two decades of education gains. Despite the global economic slowdown, concentrations of major greenhouse gases continued to increase and the global average temperature was now about 1.2°C above preindustrial levels, heralding an imminent climate crisis. The pandemic ruined the world economy, with maximum impact on developing countries, which faced increasing indebtedness and a pronounced decrease in
trade and foreign direct investment.

The UN SDG Report pinned hopes on a worldwide vaccination programme, supported by vaccine manufacturing countries, for economic revival of poor countries, and reaffirmation of the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, to mitigate environmental damage. Sadly, vaccine cooperation has been on a highly limited scale and the COP 26 Climate Summit in Glasgow has seen most countries prevaricate on their commitments, particularly on financing anti-climate change initiatives.

India’s ranking in the SDG Index has slipped consistently; ranked 115 out of 165 countries in 2019, we were ranked 117 in 2020 and 120 in 2021. Surprisingly, we are ranked behind four of our so-called poor cousins ~ Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. However, our score, as computed by the Niti Aayog, has gone up from 57 in 2018 to 60 in 2019 to 66 in 2020, which means that though we are progressing in the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals, other countries are progressing faster.

Since the SDG Index follows the calendar year, 2018 and 2019 can be taken as normal years while 2020 was a year marred by the pandemic. The stringent 68-day total lockdown and partial lockdowns thereafter saw a migrant exodus, huge job losses, closure of schools and a breakdown of the health system.

It defies understanding as to how we scored better in these areas in 2020, particularly with the Global Hunger Index indicating an increase in hunger and studies like the Azim Premji University “State of Working India /021 ~ One year of Covid,” finding that 23 crore Indians were pushed back into poverty during 2020, with a 15 per cent increase in the poverty rate in rural areas, and a 20 per cent increase in urban areas, consequent upon the Indian economy’s regression by 7.3 per cent in FY 2020-21.

Probably, every State that provided data to Niti Aayog for the index wanted to be seen as a star performer, hence, airbrushed data was provided to the Aayog; uncannily similar to the ‘zero deaths due to oxygen shortage’ snafu. Globally, SDGs have been faulted for not focusing on fundamental priorities like the elimination of poverty and hunger ~ which would lead to the achievement of all Sustainable Development Goals in due course ~ and often setting contradictory goals and prioritising many things simultaneously.

Moreover, the monitoring system of SDGs is highly imperfect: with 169 targets and 231 indicators, monitoring is a highly complex task; many have blamed the UN bureaucracy for complicating matters to the point of obfuscation. Also, in many cases, the linkage between the “means of implementation” of targets and outcomes is rather tenuous because “means of implementation” are imperfectly conceptualized and inconsistently formulated.

That said, the main stumbling block in achieving SDGs by developing countries is lack of funds. UNCTAD and several other bodies have estimated the annual cost of achieving Sustainable Development Goals at US$2.5 trillion per year, a sum which is not available with developing countries, and which rich countries are not willing to provide.

The Rockefeller Foundation has suggested mobilizing a greater share of the more than $200 trillion annual private capital investment towards development efforts through philanthropy, which also shows no sign of materialising.

For India, this problem has another dimension. According to the Economic Survey 2020-21, the combined annual expenditure on social services (education, health and other social sectors) by the Centre and States is around Rs.17.5 lakh crore (roughly US$2.3 trillion).

If we are unable to achieve Sustainable Development Goals with this level of expenditure then there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we spend money. Probably, with better governance and less corruption, we could very well achieve Sustainable Development Goals much before 2030.

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)