March 15, 2020

How close are we to the SDGs

Tikender Singh Panwar

THE fiscal crisis of 2008 struck wounds deep into the system. It shook the pillars of the world capitalist system and the sustainability of such a socio-economic system became a challenge. Compounding to it was the crisis of the environment and the sustainability of the planet, which continues to pose a serious challenge. The carbon emissions, if not checked, shall become disastrous to the eco-system itself. The five Ps i.e., people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership were conceived as the goal and targets under the sustainable development goals(SDGs) in 2015. Seventeen SDGs and 169 targets were announced to demonstrate the scale and ambition of the universal goal-the SDGs, to mitigate the crisis of economic disparity and environmental degradation.

Soon after the adoption of the SDGs, the world leaders met at Quito in the World Habitat III, where once again the question of sustainability came to the fore and the role of cities in mitigating the challenges was discussed thoroughly. John Closs, the then executive director of Habitat, screamingly kept on reminding that “business, as usual, will not help in ameliorating the problems and we have to go back to the basics.” He quite vociferously pointed out that the three decades of laissez-faire has shown that this model of development of the cities is completely unsustainable and one has to go to the basics of planning. What did he mean by that? We will discuss a little later!

It is nearly five years that the SDGs were adopted and just a decade left to achieve the targets. It would be prudent to have a cursory look at some of the developments and will they lead to the desired results? We cannot go into all the 17 SDGs, rather will focus on those which are linked to the urban world. 

Describing the first ‘P’, i.e., the people, the desired outcome is to end poverty and hunger and allow people to live with dignity. Not to go into minute details, but to quote from the latest Oxfam report that was released at the world economic forum in early 2020, the report exhibits how far we are from achieving the desired results to ameliorate poverty. To point out just five highlights, it states: (a) World’s richest one per cent have twice as much wealth than 6.9 billion people. And, in the recent period, it has further accentuated. (b) World’s richest 22 men have more wealth than wealth of all women in Africa, (c) Women and girls put in 12.5 billion hours of unpaid work every day. (d) Women’s unpaid work has a value of $ 10.8 trillion a year and (e) Taxing an additional wealth of 0.5 per cent of the richest 1 per cent over the next 10 years is equal to investments needed to create 117 million jobs in education, health and elderly care.

The governments around the world have to intervene in the interests of women, children, youth and its people and not just allow the laissez-faire economy to further accentuate the crisis and the gap.

The Indian government which is also a signatory to the SDGs and to the UN-Habitat III has released a report on the index of the SDGs in India. Along with the goals and targets, the government has added 306 national indicators to measure and grasp the SDGs in India. The Niti Ayog released its report on the SDGs and Kerala and Himachal Pradesh ranked in the top two positions. But this did not happen because of any recent active intervention by the government of India, rather the results accrue to the basic structure of planning in both these states since long, where the emphasis was laid out on social infrastructure.

Urban India has an important role to play in the achievement of SDGs. In fact, the policy paradigm in urban India for last three decades and especially since 2014, since the BJP government took over is to bring a paradigm shift in urbanisation. This shift in simple terms means to change the nature of urbanisation, from “cities being left to mere managers to cities turned into entrepreneurs.” This has led to a situation where the cities are turned into tools and instruments to attract investments and to be more competitive. There are various forms to do it, but one of the forms is to monetise land and hand over the urban commons or the property of the people in the cities to private players. This is done to make the city an attractive place for an investment of capital.

The smart city plan and the 100 smart cities, which are supposed to be the lighthouses of urbanisation and urban governance are conceived and designed in this manner. The plan is for area-based development and ensures that a particular area attracts a large chunk of investments. That area or patch could even be part of urban commons. The recent period has shown that nearly 90 per cent of the smart city plans have gone for re-development projects and this means just a small portion of the city. This has further accentuated the levels of urban poverty in Indian cities.

Instead of focussing on a more active role of the state and its intervention, the present model is to allow privatisation of the cities. And, this is even complemented with a ‘privatised urban governance model’, i.e., the model of special purpose vehicles (SPVs). The SPVs are formed in the smart cities, which have taken over the urban governance from the city councils to a private company model where there is hardly any representation of the politically elected representatives of the cities. This is a highly exclusionary model of urban governance practised, which is being strongly objected by the elected councils in the cities.

So, the Indian cities present a contradictory development trajectory, whereafter the implementation of the 74th constitutional amendment there are regular elections to the cities, but the real governance in the cities is either with the parastatals or the company format management-the SPVs. This model has further alienated the people and instead of mitigating the challenges of urban poverty has further widened the gap.

The inequity in urban India has increased manifold in the recent period. The gap between the top 10 per cent asset holders and bottom 10 per cent in rural India is 500 times, whereas in urban India it is 50,000 times; and this exhibits the real challenge existing in the cities in order to achieve the tasks of SDGs. Likewise, just 63 people in India have wealth equivalent to the entire budget of the federal Indian government. Interestingly in some of the cities, real estate has become the primary form of capital accumulation. The privatisation of the utilities has led to massive expropriation of wealth in the country. No wonder that just 63 people in India have wealth equivalent to the entire budget of the federal Indian government. Instead of taxing the wealthy, the government continues to provide tax benefits to the rich and expropriate from the poor. This is a highly unsustainable model. Similarly, the housing challenge is further becoming large. Against the accepted 25 per cent public housing policy, Indian cities have moved from 6 to 3 per cent and this has led to large scale squalors and slums. No wonder that nearly 50 per cent of urban people in India live in slums.

However, some city governments have adopted interesting redistributive models of alleviating urban poverty. One of such models is the Delhi government’s intervention in water, electricity, education and health. To provide free water to 20-kilo litre per household per month and to give free electricity up to 200 units is an interesting intervention. Likewise, in Shimla where the water and sewage utility were integrated and were able to mitigate the crisis of public health is another achievement of the city government.

Going back to the basic point, and that is to achieve the desired results under the SDGs, it is not the quantitative targets alone that can fetch the results; one, and that means the governments, individuals and various groups including those working as urban practitioners have to think beyond the contours of the present socio-economic system, for a qualitatively different system so that the five Ps can be prioritised!