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Why India should embrace SDGs

Bharti Patel, May 8 2012

This is the time for India to show real leadership by promoting its ancient perspectives.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh, has confirmed that he will attend the Rio+20 Earth Summit -- the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – on June 20-22. Travelling over 14,000 km from Delhi to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, to discuss with world leaders ‘The Future We Want’, India is poised to take firm action at the summit.

Under discussion is the ‘zero draft’ document published by the UN, focusing on the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. Inputs are requested on sectoral priorities such as energy, food security, sustainable agriculture, urbanisation, consumption and production, climate change and biodiversity. There is a growing consensus for a series of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as a key outcome of the summit. Countries would be invited to sign these as goals in 2015 when the term for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ends.

Expressed concern


India, however, has already expressed concern. “India does not support defining and aiming for quantitative targets or goals towards sustainable development,” says a ministry of environment document. India believes “any international institutional architecture seeking to address global challenges should be firmly anchored in the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities.”

Sustainable development is ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ defined in the 1987 report ‘Our Common Future’. In 1992, at the first Earth Summit in Rio, 172 government heads made global commitments for sustainable development. Since then there has been much discussion on strategies to promote economic and social advancement in ways that avoid environmental degradation, over-exploitation or pollution. Twenty years later, after several world summits and commitment to eight MDGs, and despite economic growth, a third of the world’s human population is still living in poverty, more than two thirds of farm land is degraded, nearly 1 billion people live without clean drinking water, climate is changing rapidly with a rise in global temperature, erratic rainfall, regular floods and droughts. The future is looking bleak.

Given that India, along with China, is now the fastest growing economy and predicted to overtake the UK, Russia and Japan by 2035, India should embrace this opportunity and champion the cause of sustainable development, not shy away from it. After all, India has a head start. In its possession is the rich ancient literature – the Vedas from 6500 BC, representing wisdom and knowledge of sustainable development.

India has a long heritage of eco-friendly agriculture technologies. Much of this is ritually practised by many of our small traditional farmers across India, maintaining the ecological balance. Sadly, their efforts are dismissed as backward and carry little respect in modern India. As India races ahead on the path of rapid and unchecked industrialisation and urbanisation, it leaves behind a trail of ecosystem degradation.

If the MDGs were enthusiastically accepted by India and 191 other nations in 2000, and  there has been some progress in lifting people out of poverty, increasing access to water and sanitation and raising the numbers of girls in education, surely the SDGs can go a long way towards addressing the gaps left by MDGs. The emphasis of the millennium goals was on poor and developing nations to act and address the concerns of the poor citizens, with the rich nations monitoring progress. SDGs, on the other hand, with their focus on the green economy, will apply to all countries. Pressure is mounting on governments of rich nations like the UK to back sustainability as the alternative model of development, calling for more green jobs, renewable energy and sustainable production and consumption.

This is the time for India to show real ambition and leadership by promoting India’s ancient perspectives and indigenous knowledge, along with contemporary science, and back SDGs in policy and in practice. Holding itself and other governments accountable for unsustainable practices and moving forward, boosting real growth and achieving goals that make a real difference to people and their environment. This is the future we want.

(The writer is a development professional)

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