Sustainability and SDGs are not only for the national policies to reflect, it is a combined responsibility for all of us, writes Somnath Debnath, as he lists out the tasks before us
Sustainability or sustainable development, used interchangeably at times, is a much abused phrase today as much as the need of the hour. Although sustainable development as a way of life resonates with everyone, and should be a desired state of our existence, its enactment in any form is hardly a force at present to shape economic, regional or national policies, let alone the fabric of our daily lives. However, few exceptions are shining examples that include efforts of countries like Germany and the Netherlands who have taken a radical view towards implementing it at national level and ensuring progress of their countries in the right directions.
Globally, nations have committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs in short) set by United Nations in 2015 to be achieved by 2030, ratified through UN resolution 70/1, it has hardly influenced national priorities in the recent past. Most of the countries are consistently pursuing current model of development (business-as-usual) to improve the lives of their citizenry. Whether that has improved the situation in general, is a debated topic. Data shows deteriorating environmental and social divergences and trends. From long rainy season in India, heat wave in Europe and snow in Mexico, unpredictable weather patterns in 2018-19 and environmental uncertainties are becoming a norm now.
Similarly widened income gaps and development patterns between the first and third world countries and social challenges like genocide, human trafficking, war, religious fanaticism, loss of natural resources and biodiversity, poverty and hunger have remained a persisting challenge. Political commitments of sovereign governments have swung to appease the popular views and public sentiments, but we fail to recognise that at the end it would be us — humans, the life sustaining capacity of Mother Earth, and our future — which would be paying the price for our common ignorance.
Contemporary development agendas of governments do not concern us individually and remained a national choice, left to the elected representatives, while we believed that the impacts of our collective choices can be considered in isolation. Challenges like participating in globalisation, trade barriers, inflow of migrants or refugees, participating in regional wars and other crises shaped our views through news headlines and public debates.
In contrast, sustainability and SDGs are not only for the national policies to reflect, it is a combined responsibility for all of us. Sustainability, at its core, changes our worldview towards appreciating the interconnectedness of our choices and encourages us to be holistic in our approach. This is something we — the human societies — are learning for the first time where the impacts of our actions and decision go beyond the walls of our isolated existence and permeate the very fabric of life and shape our existence. This is challenging even for the western theories and ideologies to connect to, considering the tradition of atomism and deductive reasoning (a part representing the whole) that has been central to it.
On the contrary, eastern wisdom has practiced the art and philosophy of caring, sharing and nurturing all life-forms for long, including the non-living world, but has less to offer in this regard. The onslaught of industrialisation and materialistic well-being could be the reason for this debacle that overshadowed the wisdom of eastern philosophies as well, more in favour of pragmatism, ensuring current form of development as the only one to pursue, even when the toxicity in its current form has been profound, to leave social and environmental externalities for us to pay, now or in future. Surprisingly, nomads and aboriginals for centuries have lived in harmony with nature and supported sustenance, without the sophisticated knowledge that modern societies and economies have claimed to be essential to become civilised, yet it is the latter that has led to the precarious situation that we are in today.
SDGs sensitise us to strive for pursuing national policies to target for a societal footprint that is less challenging and more inclusive. It has overall 17 goals, first six of which target eradicating social evils like poverty and hunger, promote health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, and clean water and sanitation facilities. Goals seven through twelve relates to economic challenges that the prevailing economic and industrial mindset and encourages countries to work towards providing clean and affordable energy, decent work and economic growth, industry and infrastructure improvements, reducing social inequalities, promoting sustainable cities, and responsible production and consumption.
Next set of four goals relate to environmental activism that encourages nations to move towards climate action, improve marine life, bio- and eco-diversity, and promote eco-justice. The last one is the international cooperation needed to promote policies and measures supporting sustainable development. Having said that, we would agree that grouping these goals in labeled buckets would be incorrect, as by nature these goals are sprawling, cutting across domains and generic in nature. In addition, interdependency across the goals cannot be avoided. So, instead of debating the hierarchy of order in which these can be addressed, urgency of the situation warrants that we can start anywhere.
We start with the education (SDG 4), Quality education is not always about developing Institutes of higher learning like IITs, IIMs, or Universities; it is enabling an ecosystem that is accessible to everyone (60 million Indians are deprived of access, according to RTE forum) and supports students and learners to pursue learning path of their own choice. Moreover, our challenge is not only that of skill mismatch (nearly 6 million people as of 2019 enrolled and awaiting for skill upgrade under Skill India mission), it also reflects on a factory production of largely outdated skills that the education system is churning out and challenging the industry and its limited resources. I believe, our mindset towards education needs to move from numbers (like highest pay package received by a student, number of engineers or doctors, number of grade A+ universities) to skill augmentation (like new innovations and patents, research potential of students, new areas of learning) and potential future capacity (number of start-ups, industrial patents, business plans or new seed capital received). This also means enabling a reward system that does not place a premium on one form of learning over others, and promote “meritocracy, with heart”.
In terms of primary and secondary education system should not be viewed by allocation of funds in national budget (which is anyway lower than suggested 6% of GDP by Niti Aayog), but as an investment towards building an ecosystem that scales and contributes to other SDGs, like alleviating social discrimination by bringing children of all social strata together. Such a system would allow children to learn from each other and appreciate diversity, and pursue a field of study of their own choice. Establishing a school system that is founded on the principles of building social equity and impartial learning would require us to change our model of schooling from the presently outdated Macaulay system to the one that has best elements of modern thinking as well as those of Indian traditions and wisdom. Here the role of teachers needs to be redefined as well. For example, teachers can be drafted into the system from other jobs and professions. One idea could be to reserve the teaching jobs primarily for experienced and senior citizens and fill the gap of 45% of shortfall of teachers as reported in 2018-19. This will help students benefit from the vast experiences of their teachers, and teachers can have a life filled with the love of their students. This could also lower the cost of education, where learning can be more fun-filled and quality intensive, and wisdom of life would get a chance to shape the heroics of youth.
Quality education and learning is directly related to the goal of establishing gender equality (SDG 5), which is a challenge for India and if we follow the social practices that shows considerable gap from our belief systems. Niti Aayog dashboard shows this in red zone with composite score of 42. Now, specific redressal for the challenge through government machinery would be limited to legal remediation, whereas working to improve social customs and practices would be with society. Data points to the skewed social practices with nearly half of the population remaining marginalised. For example, sex ratio in 2019 averaged at 896 (female per ‘000 males) pan India, males earning 25% higher than females, staggering 33% of married women aged 15-49 experiencing spousal violence at least once, 60% crimes against girl children as against all children, 18% female labour participation rate, only 14% owning operations and holding.
While crime against women and children should be dealt with iron hands, laxity in our law and order system also reflects the bias that half of the population is facing. This would not only need women to come forward and fight for their own rights, those in power and influencing positions whether in homes, offices, institutions, and establishments need to cultivate the mindset and practices to improve understanding and sensitivity towards gender equality. Similarly, educational institutions like schools and colleges can address this through innovative ideas like removing gender specific dress codes, promoting gender-neutral attires, and delink subject choices with gender preferences. However, it is a long way from home as it stands today.
Clean water and sanitation (SDG 6) is another goal that requires infrastructure development as well as changes in our attitude. Over the past ten years, allocation of funds by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has seen an annual average increase of 9%, whereas budgetary allocation to rural programmes has seen shifts like Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin that has half of the cumulative sanction funds still to be released as on Oct 2019. Change in mindset and governmental actions on open defecation has led to around 80% of households having a toilet, 37% of households in rural areas are using improved sanitation facility, and 72% of 5,93,731villages have been verified as open defecation free.
Niti Aayog dashboard for this SDG shows a score of 88 (on all India basis) and considered as green. Statistics is one side of the story; equitability is the challenge here. One of the learning that can be transferred from the developed countries is to offload the sanitation facility to the restaurants, eating joints, malls, shopping complexes, businesses that serve any kind of food, or to promote more shared markets which would improve the facility outreach forcing its upkeep as well, which today is dependent on the puny public support and local administration. So far as drinking water is concerned, a few points merit attention.
For example, infrastructural arrangements are needed to handle gray water, recycling mechanisms, and forcing the industries to reduce dependency of fresh water. Similarly, controlled discharge of untreated water and ground water recharging should be mandated and practiced. Dwellings in cities should be enforced for mandatory rain water harvesting, recycling water, and using gray water. While our government has worked to bring Ganges river to normalcy, this should immediately be taken up for all rivers and improve their water quality. Similarly, connected reservoir system that was once a pronounced method to connect different rivers and exhausted due to commercial exploitation, should be reversed and revitalised.
Sustainability goals 2020
Last, but not the least, is the goal of good health and well-being (SDG 3) which is shows in yellow in Niti Aayog dashboard and a composite score of 61. With child mortality rate of 50 (under 5 years of age per ‘000 of population) and nearly 40% of children below 5 year of age remaining outside the immunisation, our efforts in this direction is not yet enough. Amongst adults nearly half of the married ladies do not use any form of contraceptives, whereas outreach of caregivers are tiny (38 physicians, nurses, and midwives available per 10,000 of population). This is not to say that the only effective resolution in improving the healthcare systems and infrastructure is to build more, we need to work towards a system that is agile and corresponds to the challenges that our society is facing, For healthcare to be more approachable and available, and not constrained by the lack of qualified doctors, we can develop the system of primary care givers can be networked to provide initial diagnosis and immediate help to patients. They can be trained and drafted from the area in which they reside and can provide these services.
Use of technology for the outreach is another perspective that is yet to be explored. The idea being promoted here is that the role of primary care giver should decouple from the need of having experts on every single occasion. At the same time, the responsibility of improving the fitness and health depends on us as well and can be guided through changing lifestyles practices and by following simple practices. A daily dose of yoga, routine exercise, walking, jogging or running, drinking ample water etc., can help us fight common illness. Building a healthy nation on the principles of inclusivity would need the medicine practices to be separated from greed and money. Alternate schools of medicine like Ayurveda or Unani schools of medicine can join the movement with the prevalent forms of modern medicine. In terms of hospitals and care centers, development agenda can include policy initiatives like PPP, BOLT, BOT or other operating vehicles to channelise investments.
What would the role of an individual to improve the situation? Sustainability challenges have mostly been confined at mega levels — at the United Nations, at national policy levels, or how multinational corporations conduct their businesses, at a scale that we believe is beyond our personal lives. However, sustainability is everybody’s business; it impacts all of us, and depends on the actions and choices that we all make as individuals, as groups, and as societies. This would need us to appreciate that the system of life and sustenance that has evolved over many millennia has been challenged by pursing materialistic well-being and industrial ecosystem. In Indian context, for example, our choice of vegetarianism has been proved to reduce carbon emission per gram of food produced and consumed. So our choices can effectively shape societal choices.
Similarly, we can decide to behave respectfully towards fellow human beings irrespective of caste, color, creed, physical appearance, or social strata and contributing towards the SDG 10 (reducing inequalities). If we practice energy conservation in all possible forms, we would be contributing to SDG 7 that relates to energy. If we decide not to waste any food, while at work and home, serve or order food what we can eat, not only we would save food, we can donate remaining untouched to food banks, enabling the less fortunate ones to have one meal per day, and contribute to SDG 2 (zero hunger). Similarly, if we practice gender equality, encourage others and promote gender equality, we would be contributing to SDG 5 (gender equality). While these contributions and small behavioral changes could be seen as negligible, in reality they have an accumulated effect as “if many small people in many small places change in a small way, the face of the earth changes”, an African proverb says.
The writer is a PhD scholar and the author of the book “Environmental Accounting, Sustainability and Accountability”, published by SAGE Publications India