Special Commentary - Sustainable Development Goals: An India Perspective

09 Aug 2017

(In the context of the convening of the UN's High Level Political Forum on SDGs from 10th to 19th July)

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) reached their December 2015 deadline, and the world adopted a new set of transformative and universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of "The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development". The Agenda is an inter-governmental agreement that is meant to guide national development efforts over 15 years, from 2016 until 2030. The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) constituted by the UNGA is convening a meeting from 10th to 19th July at New York to review progress on SDGs, focussing on Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere; Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture; Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages; Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; Goal 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation; and Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.The review will presumably look at national implementation mechanisms and strategies and assess issues related to the achievement of the goals and targets in specific contexts.

India has submitted a National Voluntary Review to the HLPF that highlights current schemes and implementation initiatives and other related actions such as Nationally Determined Contributions for climate change that contribute to implementation of these Goals. The review provides an overview of organizations mandated to implement SDGs in India including the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog and the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI). It outlines a detailed set of activities, actions, and schemes for each Goal and acknowledges the interconnectivity of the Goals. The NITI Aayog has undertaken a mapping exercise to link the actions under the 17 Goals and 169 Targets to various Indian Ministries, outlining the Policies and Centrally Sponsored Schemes to related interventions and has also coordinated a series of consultations on SDGs at the national level.

So far the approach to implementing the SDGs is more or less the same that was towards the MDGs, with NITI Aayog replacing the erstwhile Planning Commission of India. India's achievements on MDGs was good in parts. Significant progress was made in some areas, such as reducing poverty by half, which was met ahead of time. However, India fell short on the target for reducing hunger. India has made progress in providing clean drinking water, but access to sanitation facilities remains inadequate (UNDP, 2015). Control of deadly diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis has been achieved. India's forest cover increased, but its carbon dioxide emissions and energy intensity remain areas of concern (MoSPI, 2015). At the national level, several programmes on poverty reduction, health, education, drinking water, and sanitation were aligned with the MDGs and budgetary allocations increased. However implementation in the various States has been uneven, with some of the already better-off States doing much better. The lack of capacity at the local government (Panchayat) and at the community level in particular is evident, especially in the States lagging behind. Actions that could have further enabled and enhanced the success in meeting the MDGs are: (i) increasing focus on planning and coordinated implementation of the cross-cutting issues, such as poverty and hunger and environment and health; (ii) formulating dedicated national- and state-level strategies and plans particularly for states lagging behind in development; including capacity building of lagging states and their local governance systems; and (iii) providing adequate focus on quantitative aspects of the MDGs.

With the arrival of SDGs, a larger development agenda is being globally addressed. In India, where poverty reduction, economic growth and since the 1970s, environmental protection as well, have long been key elements of national development planning, India has several national policies and programmes associated with each goal and target and most are generally well aligned with the SDGs. The key issue really is whether these policies and programmes with their current budgetary allocations and implementation processes will enable the achievements of the SDG goals and targets by the agreed timelines of the years 2020 and 2030? The answer can provide an impetus to planning, policy design, implementation architecture, and budgetary allocations in both the Central and State levels. NITI Aayog's review to the HLPF on India's progress has focused on various central programmes and schemes for achievement of the goals. A critique of India's Voluntary Review of two goals-Goals 1 and 2-and their interconnectedness, is given below. A similar analysis of the other goals will doubtless reveal equally useful pointers for further consideration.

Goal 1: India's review cites growth as an important instrument for achieving Goal 1 on poverty. While growth is important, it is by no means always certain that it will percolate to the poor for their poverty removal. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) mentioned in the Review, though a pro-poor strategy aimed at reducing the rigours of poverty by providing unskilled employment and also building the rural asset base, is not a full-fledged strategy for bringing people out of poverty. Regular income-generation opportunities need to be provided, and challenges of health and nutrition need to be addressed to reduce the possibility of the poor slipping back into the poverty trap. While education and infrastructure will increase opportunities, this may not always ensure equitable growth to the poor till a conducive environment is created for the poor to avail of the opportunities. One of the most potent institutions for the poor is Self Help Groups (SHGs) and expansion of the credit framework flowing to the poorest of the poor. This strategy forms the basis of the "National Livelihoods Mission" mentioned in the Review, but what is important is the need to make this the main strategic instrument for the direct attack on poverty (and invest in it accordingly), with MGNREGA and other interventions as ancillary and supportive strategies rather than independent interventions. For instance, because of absorption capacity issues, out of the approximately Rs25,000 crore of institutional credit to SHGs, almost Rs17,000 crore flows to 3 States, namely, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, which have the best MDG indicators, and just a fraction of that to the States with high poverty.

Goal 2: India's Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), Mid-Day Meal (MDM) programme, and the National Food Security Act, 2013 are excellent initiatives taken up by the Government of India to address problems of food security and to some extent, to nutritional deficits. However, in the context of the goal of "sustainable agriculture", in order to ensure long-term food security, and also reduce rural poverty, a major challenge lies in agriculture reforms, and improving India's natural resource base of land, water, and bio-diversity. In 2010, only about 35% of total agricultural land in India was reliably irrigated. National strategies have generally been aiming on the one hand at increasing the spread of irrigation facilities through large, medium, and small-scale projects and on the other on improving the productivity of rainfed and dry lands through improvements to the natural resource base (mainly soil and water conservation and watershed management). The Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP) has been providing a comprehensive framework well suited for area development schemes, focusing on soil and moisture particularly for poorly endowed lands, and it is important to retain a special focus on rainfed areas and drylands, since the bulk of the poorer population are associated with such areas. The latest strategy of linking the IWMP to the Prime Minister Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (Agriculture Irrigation scheme) may literally be leaving the rainfed and dryland areas "high and dry" and may thus be a negative for the SDG goals of poverty reduction and sustainable land resource management.

The issue of interconnectedness of the SDGs is very well exemplified in the case of the sustainability of land resources for agriculture and incomes for poverty reduction. India is still very much a land of subsistence agriculture and small holdings. Agriculture and allied activities still remains the source of livelihoods for more than 50% of the population as per Census 2011, while accounting for 18% of GDP in 2011-12 (CSO). Changing land tenurial systems, allowing contract farming and land leasing, are all necessary to create conditions for improving the economics (and sustainability) of agriculture by providing for consolidation and induction of modern practices. However, the surplus labour force will need to be provided opportunities elsewhere if adverse impacts on poverty reduction are to be avoided. While the creation of rural infrastructure, improving the supply of rural credit, and promoting skills and entrepreneurship is necessary for the purpose, the vastness of the scale of interventions is clearly beyond the reach of governments alone and needs the close involvement of the private sector. It also needs to be integrated with the urbanization strategy, since creation of non-farm employment is clearly an adjunct to urbanization. The urbanization programmes of Smart Cities, AMRUT, and "Rurbanization" need to be given an appropriate pro-poor bias and integrated more closely with the strategy for poverty reduction. The interconnectedness of the SDGs and the need to analyse the trade-offs in the interventions under the various interventions and ensure that the pro-poor bias necessary for the removal of poverty is not unnecessarily compromised requires sensitive management at the strategic level.

India needs to take urgent actions towards implementing the Goals and Targets by analysing the successes and failures in relation to the MDGs and designing an inclusive governance architecture that promotes an implementation framework that keeps as the central focus: (i) the crucial importance of inter-linkages and integrated nature of the Sustainable Development Goals; (ii) that no one must be left behind; (iii) that the Goals and Targets are to be met for all segments of society; and (iv) the need to endeavour to reach the furthest behind first, as specified in the 2030 Development Agenda. Needless to say, the governance framework has to reflect the federal nature of the polity by fully incorporating the Principle of Subsidiarity.

Clearly, in the light of the learnings from the MDG implementation, to achieve SDGs, India needs to focus on:
(i) national strategies or roadmaps based on the above;
(ii) national, state, and local-level governance issues, institutional structures, and mechanisms including community and civil society-based institutions;
(iii) national- and state-level policy changes, including appropriate budgetary allocations and supporting programmes with implementation mechanisms to meet the SDGs;
(iv) framework and mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation that incorporate feedback; and
(v) inclusion of SDGs in the national- and state-level planning or Vision Documents.

These actions will require a qualitatively higher order of planning, budgetary allocations, and interdisciplinary coordination at the National, State, and, local levels. National-level institutions and counterparts at the state level will need to be created or capacitated for this purpose. Currently, the mechanisms have been initiated in some states; others are yet to gear up to the challenge, particularly the states where the MDG performance was relatively low. The effort under the SDG process has to be correspondingly more intensive in these states. Additionally, the linkages for consultation and implementation between the national and state levels are yet to be fully institutionalized. Analysis and adaptation of national plans and programmes within the SDG framework, including those areas of high interlinkage among the SDGs, both for synergies as well as for trade-offs, needs to become more sophisticated and responsive to regional and local requirements.

A business-as-usual approach and current strategies may not be enough to meet the ambitious nature, guiding principles, interconnectivity, and time frames of the SDGs. A strong and clear signal is needed that the implementation of the SDGs is a national priority. Coordinated implementation by the Central Government and the States is an absolute necessity and this requires a mechanism at the highest level. The NITI Aayog's Governing Council headed by the Prime Minster is the best mechanism for the purpose. Not only will it enable integration of the SDGs into the 3-year Action Plan, 7-year Strategic Plan, and 15-year Vision under preparation in the Aayog, it will also ensure that the principles of "cooperative federalism" are brought fully to bear to the process. Equally importantly, it will ensure the incorporation of the principle of "Sabka saath, sabka vikaas" into the planning and implementation process, thus delivering on the promise of "leave no one behind".


  • Millennium Development Goals India Report, 2015, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India.
  • The Millennium Development Goals Report, 2015, UNDP, India.
  • National Voluntary Reviews at the High-level Political Forum, 2017.
  • http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.IRIG.AG.ZS; The World Bank (2013).
  • Working group. Minor Irrigation and Water-shed Management for the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-12017).
  • Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN.


Mr S Vijay Kumar, Distinguished Fellow, TERI
Ms Mrinal Mathur, Fellow, TERI


Mr Amit Kumar, Senior Fellow and Senior Director, TERI
Mr Ajai Malhotra, Distinguished Fellow and Senior Advisor, TERI

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