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Why India must reassess strategy to achieve sustainable development goals

(May 13, 2022)

Forging demonstrable and fast-paced progress towards the attainment of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals is the holy grail of policymakers and has occupied significant mind space and bandwidth.

Recent indicators, however, do not paint a rosy picture. India has slipped three spots from 117 in 2021 to rank 120 this year on achieving the 17 sustainable development goals, as per the Centre for Science and Environment’s State of India’s Environment Report, 2022. The report states India, with a score of 66, is now behind all South Asian countries except Pakistan. Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh all enjoy a lead over India in the attainment of sustainable development goals.

We must therefore reassess the way we are progressing in this regard. Adopted in 2015 by 192 United Nations member-countries as part of the 2030 agenda, the 17 sustainable development goals serve as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity. The goals are integrated as action in one area will affect outcomes in others. They call for ending poverty by improving health and education, reducing inequality by spurring economic growth – all while tackling climate change by protecting the environment.

India has attacked poverty through a mix of social sector schemes to promote the health and wellbeing of citizens. Schemes like Ayushman Bharat, Jan Dhan Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan, and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao are all playing a role in driving inclusive development. Even state governments are making important interventions.

Earlier this month, Madhya Pradesh launched a government program – Ladli Lakshmi 2.0 where the state pays the fee of girls who pursue medical education, or study at IITs and IIMs. Girls passing class 12th and pursuing college education will receive INR 25,000. The Ladli Lakshmi Yojana has been in force over the past 15 years, and the state government bears the cost of raising the girl child till marriage. Every year, the state celebrates Ladli Lakshmi Utsav from May 2 to May 12. Similarly, civil society organizations are making concerted efforts to enable sustainable development by driving access to health and education. I would cite the example of Smile Foundation which runs Shiksha Na Ruke program benefiting 50,000 children across 22 states, while its Health Cannot Wait campaign mobilizes resources for Covid relief and providing other healthcare services across the country.

But there is considerable ground to be covered and reassessment could help. The World Bank estimates India has 100-150 million households living below USD 1.90 consumption per day per person. And the pandemic would have increased the number of ultra-poor households in the country.

Way Ahead

What is needed is a clutch of targeted, high-impact interventions that can make population-scale impact, fast. Technology holds answers. India has built robust public data stacks on education, health, citizen enumeration, mobile phone penetration and bank account ownership. Innovation using these digital stacks can help us design scalable interventions to deliver impact quickly.

Our country is large, diverse, and complex – topographically, climatically, culturally, and population-wise. This is the reason organizations often find it challenging to implement even carefully drafted interventions. This is where we require government, industry, and NGOs to combine forces for positive change. Each of these stakeholders has unique strengths that, when brought together, can make a profound difference.

While the government brings scale of operations, corporate India has monetary muscle, organizational might, and planning skills to design effective public interventions. The civil society brings with it on-ground connect and experience of implementing public welfare initiatives. They have the networks and enjoy the trust of people which helps them implement efficiently to deliver impact.

Make no mistake, India requires urgent population scale change for poverty alleviation by rapidly improving access to livelihood, education, healthcare, and nutrition. For this to happen, the key stakeholders – governments, corporate India and civil society organizations must bridge the trust deficit and work in close coordination to improve the effectiveness of public welfare initiatives and pull people out of poverty faster and sustainably.

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