Sustainability 100+ | About Sustainability 100+
Will the COVID-19 pandemic derail India's SDG achievement?


Will the COVID-19 pandemic derail India's SDG achievement?

In January 2020, the NITI Aayog released the Sustainable Development Goals India Index 2019; a report tracking the country's progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals adopted through a UN resolution passed in the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. With a total of 17 SDGs that aim at 169 targets, this resolution serves as a blueprint to achieving a more sustainable future for all by 2030.

Understanding the SDGs

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development involves a shared vision of economic freedom, environmental balance, peace, and prosperity for the planet. The SDGs are a successor to the Millennium Development Goals targeted on hunger, poverty, education, etc, and had ended in 2015. But unlike the MDGs, the SDGs were more nuanced and meant not for emerging and developing countries, but also for the developed nations. The five pillars to focus on under SDG 2030 are:

  • • People (goals 1-6)
  • • Prosperity (goals 7-11)
  • • Planet (goals 12-15)
  • • Peace (goal 16)
  • • Partnerships (goal 17)

India readily embraced the SDGs and set ambitious targets for implementation by aligning them with the national development agenda. Hence, the national-level policies are expected to address various SDGs with their overall planning and substantial investments, which need to be allocated for overall sustainable growth.

In this light, the report released by NITI Aayog last year was extremely important to measure India's progress on the SDG roadmap, which has been very positive. The overall national score has improved from 57 to 60, with notable progress on SDG 3 (good health), SDG 6 (clean water), SDG 7 (clean energy), SDG 9 (industrial growth), and SDG 11 (sustainable cities). A significant decline in the Maternal Mortality Ratio by 77%, from 556 per 100 000 live births in 1990 to 130 per 100 000 live births in 2016 has contributed to improved performance in 'Good Health and Well-Being'; ramping up toilet coverage under Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan country's score on 'Clean Water and Sanitation.' All in all, it was a commendable performance, and the nation was cruising along on the targets.

Unfortunately, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year significantly impeded advancements in sustainability and derailed India's journey to fulfilling the SDGs.


COVID-19 and SDGs

The novel coronavirus wreaked unimaginable havoc across the globe. Its impact on human lives has been calamitous, and global economies are still reeling from the effects on businesses, financial markets and supply chains. According to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the pandemic could cost the global economy up to $2 trillion in 2020 alone; warning that shock from the pandemic will cause a recession in some countries and depress global annual growth to below 2.5 percent.

Due to the healthcare emergency it posed, other priorities took a back seat, including the SDGs. The measures that were necessitated by the need to combat the pandemic had a huge bearingon the SDGs' performance.

However, there were some short-term environmental gains because of the reduction in industrial activity and the lockdown. Some improvements were made on SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG 13 (climate action), SDG 14 (life below water), and SDG 15 (life on land). But these gains were merely temporary, as economic activity began to resume and cope with the new normal.

India's road to a sustainable society

The big question now is whether India will be able to get back on track to prioritise SDGs after the pandemic has passed. The answer is a resounding yes. One of the interesting developments during this past year has been the rising awareness of how crucial sustainable development measures are in protecting the planet for a better future. Thanks to its long-term vision and empirical nature, the SDGs can be the milestones chronicling India's economic and human development progress. It is reasonably evident that achieving the SDGs will put the country on a firm path to dealing with global health risks and emerging infectious diseases.

The pandemic has reinforced the connectivity between health, the environment, and the economy, serving as a wake-up call not only for the government but also for the private sector. Before the pandemic, many corporates functioned as if they were immune to the machinations of nature. With concepts like Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity Planning, businesses hoped that all possibilities had been taken care of. No EWRM (Enterprise-wide risk management) could have predicted or prepared us for the impact of COVID-19. The responsibility of global well-being is not merely limited to government or civil society but also the private sector.

Although, it is not as if the private sector has not been a votary of sustainable development. Like Wipro, Tatas, and Mahindra, many corporates in India have ingrained the ethos of sustainability into their businesses. Even multinationals like AB InBev, the world's leading brewer, have aligned their corporate action to the SDGs. A few years back, the company released its blueprint, namely, the 2025 Sustainable Goals, which are aligned to the SDGs. For instance, AB InBev's commitment to shift to 100% renewable electricity is well aligned with SDG 7(affordable and clean energy) and SDG 13 (climate action).

In the end, we need to move out from the shadow of crisis and try to bring the economy back on the road without losing focus on sustainable development. A successful example of which was the barley procurement done by the team at AB InBev during the COVID lockdown. The team was able to navigate the complexities and challenges which affected the local ecosystem while ensuring that farmers received a premium price for malting barley procured, resulting in win-win for the company and its partner farmers. Human progress cannot be the sole criterion for measuring sustainable development: it is enabled with the co-existence of biodiversity conservation and human society's development by addressing economic and social needs. SDGs relevance, in that context, only increases as we move forth towards 2030.