Global Day of Action 2021: SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPEMENT GOALS – Marching Towards the Global Agenda

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The concept of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was introduced way back in 2012 during the UN conference on sustainable development held in Brazil. It discussed the various development agenda targets after 2015 because that was the time when the millennium development goals would end and, therefore, we needed some kind of a vision for the world post-2015.
The objective was to come out with a set of universal goals which would be acceptable to all nations of the world, since there was a need for recognising climate change and other environmental challenges that the world was facing. Around the end of 2015, the Paris Accord was also signed on climate change and there was a great deal of buzz around environmental issues.
There was a need to address the issue of how the world would take forward the environmental agenda and a series of political and economic challenges. The global financial crisis that happened during 2008-09 highlighted the need to address the world economic order as well as the numerous political challenges, which even today, the world faces in the wake of what has been happening in our neighbourhood and elsewhere.
The concept of sustainable development goals (SDG) evolved around a document titled, “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda For Sustainable Development”. This was adopted by the United Nations on 5th September 2015. The start date of the transformation agenda was set as 1st January 2016 and it was decided to implement this for a period of 15 years, which is why the end period is kept as 2030.

The Five Pillars
These are the 5Ps or Five Pillars for sustainable development:
People: This addresses challenges such as poverty and hunger and ensuring human dignity and equality.
Prosperity: Ensure that everybody prospers and that it should be sustainable and in harmony with nature.
Peace: We need to have an inclusive society and must ensure that conflicts are minimised.
Partnership: There was a recognition that we alone cannot be carrying forward this agenda. We need to partner across nations, within nations and within communities.
Planet: Recognising that this planet of ours has finite resources and the climate change is a challenge; we need to protect the planet for our future generation.
Leave nobody behind: The 17 goals
The SDGs are for a period of 15 years and we have already covered about six years. 17 goals were enunciated in 2015 and these goals reflect the ultimate ambition of humanity. These are broken down into 169 targets, which are specific milestones to reach the above goals. The targets would cover areas like global change, ending poverty, protection of the planet and its environment and ensuring overall prosperity for everyone.
Whenever we announce certain targets, we need to measure our progress in achieving those targets. Therefore, we needed to have indicators which we can measure. There are 232 distinct global indicators for these 169 targets and the overarching theme of this entire set of indicators is that no one is left behind. It is very important to realise that this has been adopted across the world.
We no longer want growth to happen only in certain sections of the society. We need everyone to prosper and ensure that everyone’s ambitions are realised. The Honourable Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has come out with his vision for the State for the next 10 years. His underlying message is the same, which is, not to leave anyone behind. We are a proud state which believes in social justice, equality and the need for every citizen to prosper.

There are 232 distinct global indicators for these 169 targets and the overarching theme of this entire set of indicators is that no one is left behind.

The 17 goals cover areas such as poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, affordable clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation and infrastructure, reducing inequality, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, climate action, life below water and life on land, peace, justice and strong institutions and finally partnerships. This is our main blueprint for the SDGs.

The monitoring mechanism
To carry forward the SDGs, at the national level, we have the NITI Aayog as the apex body and nodal institution. It monitors how SDGs are implemented across the country in various states. It also does a ranking of states and Union Territories on their achievement of the SDGs through an SDG India Index. The third version of this Index has been recently published.
Then we have the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) which is the data focal point for the nation, for coordination of all data related activities. It pulls data from various ministries, agencies and various sources and uses this to measure our performance on the indicators. It also monitors how globally the SDG agenda is faring, so that we have a benchmark against which we can rate ourselves. It releases the National Indicator Framework (NIF) that maps schemes and programmes of the Union Government to the SDG indicators and other outcome indicators. Although there are 232 odd global indicators under the SDG framework, India has gone a step further and come out with its own national indicators which were earlier 305 in number, but are now revised to 297.
In Tamil Nadu, at the state level, a high-powered committee chaired by the Chief Secretary, and assisted by the Planning and Development department, monitors the overall implementation of the SDGs. The State Planning Commission, in turn, has constituted eight working groups, which are headed by Secretaries of key nodal departments, to periodically monitor all these indicators. The Department of Economics and Statistics of the Government of Tamil Nadu acts as our data focal point. Each of the departments of the Government have individual SDG units. They need to keep monitoring whether their schemes are in conformity with the SDGs and the indicators are indeed reflecting the attainment of SDG targets.

The purpose of these rankings is not to find fault with any policy or its implementation, but it is a way of trying to introspect and attempting course correction wherever required.

Tamil Nadu’s high ranking
NITI Aayog first came out with its SDG national index in 2018, which was the baseline year. During SDG Version 1.0, Tamil Nadu scored very well and we were ranked third. With a score of 66, we were just a point behind the two leading states of Himachal Pradesh and Kerala.

In 2019-20, during SDG Version 2.0, we maintained our third rank. The good news is that in the latest SDG Version 3.0, which came out in 2020-21, Tamil Nadu has moved up to the second rank, just a point behind Kerala. On the first goal of eliminating poverty, we have improved considerably and we are consistently ranked number one on this goal with 86 points out of 100.
On attaining zero hunger, we have improved our ranking to six, but we are still way behind the best state in that SDG goal. On the goal of Good Health, Tamil Nadu is known to be a state with a very strong public health infrastructure and we are ranked third. On education, unfortunately, we have slipped a bit and we are fairly below the national leader in terms of score. Likewise, our performance in other goals has been mixed as seen below.
The purpose of these rankings is not to find fault with any policy or its implementation, but it is a way of trying to introspect and attempting course correction wherever required. We cannot rest on our past performance or achievements and need to continually improve ourselves as a society.
Partnerships and the role of corporates
To reach these goals, it is not just up to the state to do everything. It is, in fact, more about partnerships. Conferences such as this one are organized to sensitize the industry and civil society to understand that all of us have to work hand in hand to achieve the targets set out under these goals.
Corporates can play a big role in the attainment of SDG goals. The corporate industry is one of the biggest providers of employment. Most of the growth that we see in the economy is on account of the private sector and, therefore, as an engine of growth, the corporates play a very vital role in our economy. Secondly, the other major contribution of corporates is on technology and innovation. Some of the best technology and innovative practices must come from the corporates. Thirdly, apart from the Government, which is a major spender on infrastructure and services, it is the corporate sector that brings in investments that lead to economic growth and jobs.
At the global level, there are bodies which harness the collective power of the corporate world. We have platforms like the UN Global Compact which has come out with a blueprint for attainment of SDG leadership. They have listed out areas like financial innovation, reporting, breakthrough innovation and decent work in global supply chains as cutting across all SDG goals. This is something which all businesses, irrespective of what sector they are in, need to concentrate upon.
Pathways to various themes
Then there are certain thematic areas and pathways related to them. If we need to go in for a low carbon pathway, then we need to focus on goals 7, 13 and 8. Likewise, if you we are looking at a pathway which leads to healthy and sustainable lifestyle, there are goals under SDG 3, 12 and 17. It is a very fascinating blueprint that Global Compact has come out with as it is specifically targeted to corporates, which can be examined.

When we come to innovation, there are four strategic SDGs that can amplify how corporates can influence and deliver maximum value. In fact, SDG 2 on zero hunger and SDG 3 on good health and well-being are typically those which are universal. SDG 9, which relates to Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure and SDG 11, which pertains to Sustainable Cities and Communities on the other hand look at social value maximization.
Food supply and nutrition
20 to 40 percent of our perishable food, particularly horticultural crops, is estimated to be lost every year during post-harvest handling and transportation. This adds to the consumer’s cost because somebody has to absorb that. On the one hand, the farmer gets a low value for the crop that he produces. The consumer, on the other hand, ends up paying a huge price for the product. We have intermediaries who are part of the value chain and then there are costs like transportation, storage, etc. But what about the huge post-harvest losses? This is an area which corporates can look into, because of their strength in handling supply chains. Their positive action will benefit both consumers and producers.

Most states in India spend around the level of 1.0 to 1.5% of GDP on public healthcare. This needs to go up. But for every 1% increase, the increase in spend will be huge.

Nutrition is another major challenge for a country like India, despite some of the best public health care systems in states like Tamil Nadu. It is a matter of concern for all of us that anaemia as well as other malnutrition forms like stunting and underweight are a major challenge. Tamil Nadu does not perform too well in some of these areas, as nearly 45% of our pregnant women continue to be anaemic, which has an impact on the health and well-being of children. If a child is subjected to nutritional deficiencies at her early stage of development, she will not be a productive citizen in terms of health or educational outcomes later on in life. This is a serious problem, despite all the efforts that we, as a community and Government have been taking, over the years.
This can be easily addressed if we concentrate on food supply chains, minimise losses, diversify our agriculture and encourage households to include more vegetables, fruit, milk and other nutritious food in our diet. Communities and nations across the world have done it. There is no reason why India and particularly Tamil Nadu cannot do it. Ultimately, our outcome is to improve the health and well-being of our citizens.
Healthcare expenditure and poverty
On an average, India spends about 3.6% of its GDP on healthcare. Less than 1.3% of the GDP comes from government spending on healthcare. The rest 2.3% comes as private sector spend or out-of-pocket expenditure by citizens on health needs. Countries like Brazil and other developing countries spend much more of their GDP on healthcare. We need to increase our GDP spend from current levels to at least 6% of GDP.
Most states in India spend around the level of 1.0 to 1.5% of GDP on public healthcare. This needs to go up. But for every 1% increase, the increase in spend will be huge. To give you a sense of the numbers, if Tamil Nadu were to increase its expenditure on public healthcare by just 1% of its SGDP, it would need to raise Rs 20,000 crore of resources additionally, which is nearly equal to what it is already spending.
At the same time, we need to ensure that people don’t end up spending from their pockets. If the Government systems are strengthened, and if Government spends more on public health, the spending by the common people on private healthcare will come down. It is estimated that the cost of medical treatment in the private sector could be nearly ten times the cost of treatment in a Government facility. The Government and the corporates have to sit together to see how we can bring these costs down, so that people don’t end up paying a huge part of their limited income from their pockets on treatment.
There are studies that show that the single biggest cause of poverty in India is the healthcare cost. People continue to be poor or if they have come out of poverty, they slip back into poverty because of unbearable healthcare costs. When all of a sudden, there is an emergency in the family, and if the nearby Government hospital or PHC cannot take care, they have to rush to a private healthcare provider where they have to pay through their nose, for which they invariably borrow and go into debt. Many case studies have revealed how important it is for public health systems to be strengthened and also to have in place affordable health care for the poor.
Women in leadership
The National Indicator Framework is mapped to the various SDG goals. For example, Goal 5 talks about women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life. Today, women representation on Board of Directors of listed companies is just 19%. Our goal must be to ensure that women get equal opportunity for leadership at all levels. It is not just about reserving seats in our legislatures and local bodies but in Board positions as well. These numbers have not been improving considerably over the past few years and this is a matter of concern.

Companies that align their priorities with the SDGs are bound to strengthen engagement with their customers, employees and other stakeholders.

Energy efficiency
Target 7.3: By 2030, we must double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency. We have an indicator which measures how much energy we consume in terms of the primary energy vis-a-vis the GDP. To be sustainable, we need to reduce this energy intensity. If we consume, say 100 mega joules per rupee of GDP, we need to bring it down to 50 by the end of 2030.
One way to do that is to transition to renewable sources of energy, but there are challenges in converting from coal-based power to renewable energy. However, if corporates reduce their consumption of energy through energy efficiency measures, greener buildings, use of energy-saving devices or using green power, we can definitely achieve this goal.
Focus on manufacturing
Target 9.2: Promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization. By 2030, we must significantly raise industry’s share of employment and gross domestic product. One indicator is the percentage share of GVA manufacturing to total GVA. The second indicator is manufacturing employment as a proportion of total employment. The focus clearly has to be on manufacturing. We need to increase the share of manufacturing in our GDP basket. It is currently 25% in Tamil Nadu, thanks in part to the initiatives taken by both the Centre and State, including the Make-in-India campaign.
Still why is it that we are not able to become the manufacturing hub of the world? In the new emerging world order, manufacturing companies are looking to relocate from traditional geographies like China to countries like India. It is a great opportunity and we must grab it.
While manufacturing contributes to about 25 percent of our GDP, the share of employment from manufacturing is just over 12%. The Government cannot increase the share of manufacturing or jobs in the manufacturing sector by itself. It is the industry that must come out with workable strategies in partnership with Government to see how we can attain this goal.
Internalise sustainability
Finally, we have to encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information in their reporting cycle. How many companies report about sustainability in their annual reports? One of the indicators could be the proportion of companies that report this. Compliance apart, the very concept of sustainability has not yet been internalized in many companies, though there are some that are doing excellent work, both in the large industry and the MSME sector.
Companies that align their priorities with the SDGs are bound to strengthen engagement with their customers, employees and other stakeholders. There was a small sample survey done in 2018 by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development among 250 of its members. Interestingly, nearly half the respondent companies perceived reputational gains from sustainable practices.
Opportunities galore
To summarize, the SDGs can serve as a roadmap to help identify future business possibilities. When the whole world is marching towards sustainability, there are enormous opportunities which the corporates can latch on to. At the same time, there is a need from the Government side to bring in certain regulatory measures, so that everybody contributes to the SDG agenda. Companies that voluntarily take up the SDGs will obviously be ahead of the curve and can avoid penalties or higher taxation if they comply with the regulations as and when they kick in. Companies that invest in SDGs now are bound to meet success later on.
There is a quote that says, “Businesses cannot succeed in societies that fail.” If we do not follow the SDG roadmap, we may well end up as a failed society where no business can thrive. So it is in the interest of corporates that they partner with Government to ensure that we, as a society, do not fail on the SDG scorecard.
Go for inclusive business
Companies must invest in people and inclusive growth and have resilience to social conflict, climate change and pandemics. All these are not just the State’s responsibility. For instance, to promote gender equality, corporates have to give equal opportunity to women and give them equal wages.
For inclusive growth, we need to partner with each other. The Government and the private sector must come out with joint innovations to address our problems of infrastructure, energy, water, sanitation and jobs which must be inclusive and which do not leave anybody behind, irrespective of their background. SDGs tell us to do business that is inclusive and responsible.

When the whole world is marching towards sustainability, there are enormous opportunities which the corporates can latch on to.

There are a number of good practices which are available. There are platforms which allow us to share these practices. Let us learn from these best practices, develop toolkits and train people within organizations. We must integrate SDGs in corporate strategies and business plans and measure them the way Government is now measuring the outcomes of its schemes and programmes through a National Indicator Framework. The State is also planning to come out with its own State Indicator Framework and the corporate world can likewise develop a Corporate Indicator Framework for SDGs.
I appeal to the members of MMA, particularly the corporates, to internalise SDGs in your work ethic and business model, not just for the good of your company but for the society.