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The SDG Framework: An Indian Take

India is a large and heterogeneous country and there are considerable variations across States and within them. Such laggard regions pull down all-India trends

Before the SDGs, there were the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The last country report by India on MDGs was published in February 2015. There are 17 SDG goals and a possible 169 targets. Note that we still don't know what indicators associated with each of the targets will be. Note also, as with MDGs, every target or indicator may not be relevant for India. That's for Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) to work out. How has India done on MDGs? It is best to give a longish quote from the February 2015 report. We haven't done well on many health-related indicators. Part of the reason is an obvious fact, not always appreciated. India is a large and heterogeneous country and there are considerable variations across States and within them. Such laggard regions pull down all-India trends.

"While talking about India's progress towards MDGs, the progress so far has been mixed. The nation has already achieved the target of halving the poverty head count ratio, eliminated gender inequality in primary and secondary education, achieved the required trend reversal in the fight against HIV/ AIDS, ensuring the achievement of target of drinking water facility and improving drastically the telephone and internet penetration. The Country is moderately on track, while considering the targets of achieving universal education, reducing child mortality as the sharp decline in the recent years in Infant Mortality and Under Five Mortality are likely to take us very near to the target, trend reversal has achieved in the fight against Malaria and TB, though there was some fluctuations in between, measures have taken to reverse the loss of environmental resources, progress has been achieved in improving the environment by improving the coverage of forest area, protected areas, reducing CFC emissions, though there are still areas of concern like Carbon Di Oxide emission and Energy intensity. Hunger remains a tough challenge in India. Also achieving the desired target for ensuring sanitation facility is lagging behind. Similarly, the Country has to strive more to reduce the maternal mortality to reach the desired level."

Those MDGs establish a base-line of relative success and failure, from India's perspective. In bulleted form, those 17 SDGs cover (1) poverty; (2) hunger; (3) health; (4) quality education; (5) gender equality; (6) clean water and sanitation; (7) renewable energy; (8) good jobs and economic growth; (9) innovation and infrastructure; (10) inequality: (11) sustainable cities and communities; (12) consumption; (13) climate; (14) marine eco-systems; (15) eco-systems; (16) peace and justice; and (17) partnership for the goals. Personally, I have felt such goals and/or targets need to be narrow and focused, with clear, precise and unambiguous intentions, instead of vague and generalized statements. Hence, I think we have too many goals and/or targets. I don't like the language either. But that's neither here, nor there. Reflecting my biases, I think the important ones for India are (1) through (12).

However, once we have the indicators, monitoring the 17, or even the 12, isn't going to be easy. Since I am not sure people fully appreciate data limitations, I am going to quote from the February 2015 report again, and remember, this was for a leaner MDG basket. "Non-availability of data at Sub-State level prevented statistical monitoring at bottom level. At Sub-State level, estimates for various indicators are not available from Surveys conducted at national level. In order to generate estimates at Sub-State level, sufficiently large samples are required from each district making the total sample size so large, that, it is not found feasible due to cost and other organizational considerations…Non-availability of data updates annually: The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) conducts surveys every year, but the topics are repeated once in five years, as a result, data for inter survey years are not available…Irregular periodicity: Data on various important health indicators are obtained from National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the latest survey in this series corresponds to the period 2005-06 and the NFHS-4 (2014-15) conducted after a long gap is in progress…Data from Administrative records most of the times; suffer from incomplete coverage; for example, registration of births and deaths done by Civil Registration System, or mortality data from the hospitals suffer from incomplete coverage." We may be unhappy with the quality, and time-lags, of Indian data. There is a litany of problems in the 2001 Report of the Rangarajan Commission, leading to the establishment of the National Statistical Commission. However, data problems will not ease until the economy becomes more formal and more urban. Formalization and urbanization are desirable. But these don't occur because of SDG compliance requirements.

I cannot speak on behalf of MOSPI, which will decide targets/indicators for India. On the basis of what I know about Indian data, at the level of States, we will be able to handle goal (1) on poverty. We will have some problems with goal (2) on hunger, but since this also includes agriculture, we will have some information. There will be serious data availability and time-lag issues with goal (3) on health. Goal (4) on education should be fine. Goal (5) on gender equality should also be manageable. On both goal (6) and goal (7), there will be data problems, but we will be able to rustle up a few indicators. Goals (8) and (9) should be reasonably fine. I am not sure what indicator we will think of for goal (10) on inequality. There is nothing much you can do, beyond some aggregate measure (like Gini coefficient) or share of some decile in consumption expenditure. One can add a poverty head-count ratio to that. That inequality bit has a segment that is within the country and a part that is inter-country. My comment was restricted to the within country bit. Goals (11) and (12) will be extremely difficult to pin down. At sub-State level, we will be constrained because there isn't much beyond the Census.

In gauging how India might do till 2030, there are few reasons why one shouldn't extrapolate on the basis of what has happened till 2015. First, recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission have meant a substantial amount of untied devolution with States. Add to this State-level Finance Commissions, decentralized templates for Central sector and Centrally sponsored schemes and decentralized planning in some States. Second, at least for rural India, we already have the SECC (Socio Economic and Caste Census) and this helps target policy interventions and subsidies better. Third, a large number of accounts have been opened under PMJDY (Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana) and these are increasingly being seeded with Aadhar numbers. Micro ATMs, smart phones and IT use make financial inclusion less of a problem, as we have known it. The challenge is less about an unbanked population. It is more about developing financial products (credit, insurance, pensions) for this newly-banked population. Fourth, government payments are increasingly being routed into accounts through direct benefit transfers. Fifth, there is the phenomenon of growth, primarily responsible for India's improvement in HDI (human development index) scores. This is not just about whether India's growth will be 7.5 per cent or 9 per cent. It is also about the nature of income (and expenditure) distributions. They aren't symmetric, they tend to be log normal. As the thick part of the distribution passes over a threshold, you therefore have a sudden drop in poverty and deprivation, however measured. Other countries have been through this change and India will confront this in the years leading up to 2030. Till 2015, India didn't do as well on MDGs as one had hoped. In particular, India didn't do that well on health and many MDG indicators were health-related.

I have given you five reasons why I think the performance on SDGs will be better. I have already flagged the problem of our being able to monitor targets/indicators. With that caveat, we should do well on (1), (4), (5), (7), (8), (9), (10), (11) and (12). I am a shade less hopeful about (2), (3) and (6). This is rosier than in 2000, when MDGs were formulated. There may be a bit of wishful thinking in this, but I don't think so. India is indeed better poised now.

This article is part of a series on the SDGs for BW Sustainability

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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SDGs india economy niti aayog bibek debroy

Dr Bibek Debroy

Bibek Debroy is an economist and was educated in Ramakrishna Mission School, Narendrapur; Presidency College, Kolkata; Delhi School of Economics and Trinity College, Cambridge

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