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Chapter 6 of the Economic Survey takes a look at India’s performance with regards to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that all 193 member nations of the UN have committed to. This is a list of 17 goals which include objectives such as no poverty, zero hunger, clean water and sanitation, etc. The aim is to achieve all of the goals on the list by the year 2030, and the SDI Index tracks the likelihood of the member nations achieving this goal within that timeframe. 

The 17 SDGs are : 

  1. No Poverty
  2. Zero Hunger
  3. Good Health and Well-Being
  4. Quality Education
  5. Gender Equality
  6. Clean Water and Sanitisation
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  10. Reduced Inequalities
  11.  Sustainable Cities and Communities
  12.  Responsible Consumption and Production
  13.  Climate Action
  14.  Life below Water
  15.  Life on Land
  16.  Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
  17.  Partnerships for the Goals

NITI Aayog vs UN Index

According to the survey, India has been consistently improving with regard to its pursuit of these goals over the last few years. Out of a score of 100, the country has moved from 57 in 2018-19 to 60 in 2019-20 and to 66 in 2020-21. To be precise, this is according to the NITI Aayog’s index, not the index maintained by the United Nations. This is where things get interesting as the UN’s index ranks India 120th out of 193 with a score of just 60. We fall behind the likes of Botswana, Ghana, Bangladesh, and Iraq. In fact, India’s ranking slipped from 115th to 120th over the course of the last 18 months. A score above 65 makes a country a ‘front runner’, while a score between 50 and 64 means that a country is a ‘performer and a score below that is for ‘aspirants’. If we go by the NITI Aayogs assessment, India is a front runner, but the UN disagrees. 

Inflation Across All Groups​
Source: Sustainable Development Report
Inflation Across All Groups​
Source: Economic Survey 2021-22

A report published by the UN cites either regression or a lack of progress on the following goals – ending hunger and achieving food security, achieving gender equality, building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and fostering innovation. The government’s reasoning for developing its own index is that it has done so to track the progress of each individual state. However, the UN does keep tabs on how the various states in the country perform. For example, it identifies Kerala as the best-performing state while Jharkhand and Bihar are the two worst-performing ones. The NITI Aaayog Index does not differ in its analysis. While it may be useful for the government to utilise a system that tracks the performance of each individual state and union territory, it is difficult to understand why or how one index presents a more positive outlook on the country’s performance and the other doesn’t. 

This is not the first instance that the government of India has diverged from the standards set by the UN. The poverty line according to the UN is $1.90 a day. This amounts to between Rs. 150 and Rs. 140 a day which is what the UN defines as the value of goods needed to sustain one adult per day. India’s poverty line is much lower, at between Rs. 35 and Rs. 40 a day. According to this line, the percentage of the population that is currently impoverished would be much lower than if we used the UNs threshold. The government may claim that the UNs standard is based on an international analysis which may not necessarily apply to India, but the move away from that standard still seems unnecessary. 

The Environment and the Challenges

Other portions of the survey talk about the country’s performance with respect to forest area coverage, plastic waste management, air quality, and the management of groundwater. Between 2010 and 2020, India’s average annual net gain in terms of forest coverage ranked third amongst all countries. The forests in India currently make up 2% of the worlds total forest area. Madhya Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh contribute the most to the country’s total forest area while Ahmedabad and Bangalore rank the highest in terms of cities. 

Net Annual Forest Area Gain​

The government has set its sights on completely doing away with single-use plastics by 2022. It has thus far mandated that the thickness of plastic bags be increased (to promote reuse) and from the 1st of July 2022, the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of identified single-use plastic, including polystyrene and expanded polystyrene commodities will be completly prohibited. 

With respect to the country’s groundwater resources, India has been steadily increasing the amount it extracts. The extent of extraction varies across the country, with north-west India and parts of South India falling under the ‘overexploited’ category. This is when a region extracts more than 90% of the available groundwater resources. Keep in mind that these resources get recharged every year, but if we cross the 100% mark then the amount being extracted will be greater than the amount recharged, therefore depleting the resource permanently. The average for the country is currently 62% which is in the ‘safe’ category, but as mentioned, certain regions are dangerously close to the limit. It will be important for state governments to manage the issue, but it is clear that the country’s agriculture industry needs to adopt better practices and/or better tech.

Annual Groundwater Usage​

Air pollution is one of the biggest challenges the country faces today. The government initiated the National Clean Air Programme in 2019 with the intent to achieve a 20%-30% reduction in particulate matter (PM) by 2024. 96 cities have thus far showed a reduction in PM10 concentration between 2019-20 and 2020-21 but at the same time, 36 cities showed an increase. 

Funds released under the National Clean Air Programme (Crores)​

Things To Keep In Mind

Being a developing country, it is understandable that India will have to move at its own pace when dealing with the problem of climate change. After all, the chief polluters are the countries from the West, so the pressure on India to meet global requirements must be eased a little. Having said that, we need to be realistic about our progress. The divergence from the UN’s standard is a little worrying, especially given the fact that the main motivation appears to be to present a better version of the country than the one that exists. If we can not be honest about the challenges that lie ahead of us, we risk not dealing with them properly. The country has taken steps towards a greener future, but this is only scratching the surface. The real work must begin now. 

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