Columns

NITI Aayog’s ‘unsustainable’ index

MA Oommen | Updated on March 19, 2019 Published on March 18, 2019

The index compares the performance of States on sustainable development by taking a reductionist view of the concept

The SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) India Index: Baseline Report was placed in the public domain last December by NITI Aayog. By way of a background, since January 1, 2016, the UN set out 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets before 193 countries as an agenda for the next 15 years. The UN’s SDGs are a continuation of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which had only eight objectives. The targets covered by the UN SDGs range from poverty eradication, gender equality, human health and sanitation to sustainable urban settlements and safeguarding the global ecosystem.

The NITI Aayog has now come up with a single measurable index for India and worked out an inter-State (includes the Union Territories) comparison of the progress made.

To consider SDG India Index as a single composite measure for the country can be misleading. The sum of State-specific indicators cannot add up to that. The India Index should certainly be more comprehensive and the target indicators much more wider and all-India specific. SDGs are postulated without any theory which could serve as intellectual scaffoldings or as practical guidelines for goal-setting.

The process aspect as well as the instrumental tools of achieving the goals have been left delightfully vague. Even intrinsic values like freedom and democracy which have tremendous instrumental significance do not figure in the development goals and in the setting of targets. Not only does the Index lacks a clear perspective, the indicators chosen to measure the goals, the omission of four vital goals in the constructions of the India index, the choice of methodology, and so on, leave much to be desired.

Most of the targets chosen, such as poverty eradication, zero hunger, good health, clean water and sanitation, sustainable consumption, reduced inequality and climate action, are highly correlated and require an integrated approach and strategy.

The choice of indicators depends a great deal on how you conceptualise the goals. Measuring poverty as a phenomenon in terms of ‘above or below an income poverty line’ as is done in India’s index is certainly different from Amartya Sen’s conceptualisation of poverty as the denial of freedom to do valuable things.

SDG 1 on no poverty “aims to end poverty in all its forms everywhere”. This can be meaningfully achieved not through a reductionist conceptualisation of income poverty but only through multiple capability building.

Equality of opportunities

Moreover, it is to be seen along with reducing inequality which cannot be meaningfully achieved without enhancing equality of opportunities. The SDG India Index uses indicators like the ratio of the richest 10 per cent of the population's share of gross national income (GNI) divided by the poorest 40 per cent’s share of urban and rural households, and the utilisation of the money allocated for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

By any reckoning they are not important policy variables for reducing inequality. In his famous book Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty has adduced evidence to show that where the rate of return on capital ‘r’ is higher than the growth rate (g), income inequality would widen. Can the policymakers ignore this reality? Although we have State-wise data on land distribution, asset distribution, etc., why were they left out? The choice of the 62 indicators by the NITI Aayog needs critical scrutiny.

A country index as far as possible should include all the goals and build appropriate all-India targets. The omission of four UN SDG goals — sustainable consumption and production; climate action; life below water (marine ecosystems); and partnerships for the goals for strengthening the means of implementation — weakens the validity and significance of the exercise. This is done on the specious plea that the comparable data are not available.

The idea of sustainable development revolves around SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production. It is also linked to climate action (SDG 13). By omitting the targets and indicators relating to SDG 12, the entire exercise is virtually nullified. It is much more than ensuring intergenerational equity or focussing on reducing pollution and minimising waste. Foundationally, it is curbing the acquisitive urge and challenging the economic philosophy of unlimited wants and expanding growth which is the rationale of capitalism.

According to the UN, when the global population reaches 9.6 billion in 2050, the equivalent of three Earths is needed to sustain the present level of lifestyles, not to speak of the situation if the growing demand, thanks to increasing innovation and technological upgradation, for profit were also considered. NITI Aayog naively hopes that the national policy on biofuels and such other policies can do the job.

Again the four-fold classification of States based on scores into Achiever (100 scores) Frontrunner (65-99) Performer (50-64) and Aspirant (0-49) is arbitrary and the implicit value-judgment questionable. Kerala and Himachal Pradesh with an aggregate score of 69 each along with Tamil Nadu with 66 are on the top in the pecking order in the frontrunner category. Depending on the indicators chosen and the type of data produced in support one can be easily in the achiever bracket.

Also, one or two lower scores can pull you down as all variables are treated equally and only a simple average is used to arrive at the total score. If instead of arithmetic mean, median statistic is used the entire ranking order will change. Similarly, a wrong data set can alter the ranking.

For example, take the case of Kerala in regard to Goal 15: Life on land. Out of the four variables chosen, Kerala gets 100 scores for three targets — percentage of forest area, decadal change in extent of waterbodies within forests from 2005-2015 and change in forest areas from 2015-2017. But these are based on irrelevant facts not subjected to scrutiny. If Kerala’s afforestation is at the rate of 2.66 per cent per annum and the reported forest cover is 52.3 per cent (see Table 15.1 of the Report) by 2030, a sizeable proportion of Kerala will be under forests. For a State like Kerala, known for its aggressive forest encroachment, the data and the findings are difficult to explain.

According to the State Planning Board’s Economic Review, the forest cover in 1980-81 was 27.83 per cent and it remained the same in 2005-06 and 2014-15 as well. But in 2016-17, the proportion jumps to 52.3 per cent which is reported by NITI Aayog. Another illustrative example to show how wrong choice of targets can result in a distorted picture is that of Goal 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure. Here, Manipur tops followed by Kerala. Any number of illustrative evidences can be cited to argue that the SDG India Index needs refinement. A defective baseline assessment can lead to wrong inferences.

The writer is an honorary fellow at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram

Published on March 18, 2019
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor