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The SDG Agenda

Unlike the MDGs which primarily applied to developing nations, this is a universal agenda.

The SDG Agenda
The SDG Agenda

Practically every diplomat one meets at the UN is sleeping, eating and breathing the Sustainable Development Goals agenda. Among Indians present at the UN headquarters in New York, the excitement over Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit is palpable. Among the Americans, both Liberal and Conservative, the discussions are as follows, will Mr Modi speak in Hindi or English, how exactly does India claim to already be working on 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, how does the Make in India philosophy take the SDGs forward?

Member States, UN agencies and civil society groups temper their optimism with reality checks even as they channel unprecedented energy towards the new sustainable development agenda that aims to lift billions out of poverty and deprivation, one that will hopefully create a more just and equitable world by 2030.

Strong national accountability mechanisms are said to be a crucial foundation. Speaking at "The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development-Southern Perspectives, organised by the RIS (Research and Information System for Developing Countries) and the Permanent Mission of India in New York, NITI Aayog Vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya credits Ambassador Asoke Mukerjee for the role he and his Mission played in "nudging the SDG agenda towards the priorities set by Prime Minister Modi.

"Grapevine has it that the early drafts of the SDG agenda were far more heavily tilted towards sustainability and not enough towards development. In considerable measure, it is to the credit of negotiating skills of the Ambassador and his Mission that the priorities set by India’s Prime Minister now occupy the center stage in the SDG agenda that is likely to be adopted by the leaders of the world."

Panagariya lays special emphasis on Goals 8 and 9 which address important instruments of poverty alleviation such as economic growth, jobs, infrastructure and industrialisation. The fact that these instruments have been explicitly recognised as policy objectives in their own right, perhaps for the first time in the history of multilateral development negotiation, is of great significance for developing countries, believes Panagariya.

He emphasises the importance of robust economic growth which in turn depends on policies that enhance productivity. Because the poor are heavily concentrated in agriculture, accelerating growth in this sector can bring the fastest relief to them. To this end, the government has begun to reorient public investment in ways that would raise productivity while economising on our scarce water resources.

Of course, Modi's "Make In India" campaign make for a heavy pitch in Panagariya' speech who explains that agriculture in India today accounts for only 17% of the GDP. "A majority of the small and marginal farmers and, especially, their children today seek to exit agriculture and are keen on alternative employment opportunities to satisfy their rising aspirations. There is acute need to create good jobs for these young aspirant Indians."

Make In India, says the NITI Aayog vice-chairman serves as the umbrella for the policies and initiatives necessary to accelerate manufacturing growth and job creation. It would not only end bureaucratic paralysis, he says, but also pave the way for the reform of labour and land acquisition laws by the states, skill development, industrial corridors and smart cities. "India’s success in sustaining high growth and therefore poverty alleviation will contribute in substantial measure to the success of the SDGs. Improving the lives of 1.4 billion Indians would make a major dent in the goal of improving the lives of all humanity," stresses Panagariya.

Amit Narang, Counsellor, an officer of the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations says the SDG agenda goes beyond symptoms. "This agenda is making things happen. For example it says that every country must grow at 6-7%. The goals are pretty much built into the agenda. The buzzword is equality. I believe that policy flexibility is built into the SDG document and the level of political accountability on SDGs will be on a much higher scale," says Narang, who believes that if India gets its goals right, everybody else gets it right.

Amit Narang explains that "what we fought for in the agenda and what we need as a developing country is for the international system to be right to help us generate our own resources."

Of course there are contentious issues such as the idea of sustainable consumption which the United States hates. The Indian approach is that climate change is but one part of environment sustainability. "There are certain things which might be climate sensitive but be bad for the environment. Or some things might be good for health but bad for food security. What the SDGs will do is help developing nations get together and discuss matters without imposing conditions on anyone." Amit explains that policy flexibility is built into the document. National targets are defined by national circumstances and global ambitions.

Effectively, how the SDG document is different from the earlier one, Millennium Development Goals, is that it is a now a matter of universality, not conditionality. Unlike the MDGs which primarily applied to developing nations, this is a universal agenda. All States will have the opportunity to participate and provide feedback as equals. High income nations will now have to answer for their role in the global partnership andcoherence of their policies with the overreaching goal of sustainable development for all.

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