Achieving the SDGs: Rhetoric and reality

Jagadananda and Navjot Bir Singh
Centre for Youth and Social Development (CYSD)

The Government of India presented its first Voluntary National Review (VNR) report on Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to United Nations in 2017. Despite VNR guidelines urging countries to inform on “progress and status of all SDGs”,1 India reported on only seven goals. This is surprising as India’s VNR claimed its national development goals are “mirrored in the SDGs”2 and as Government had asserted 11 of 17 SDGs were already being worked on even before the SDGs were adopted.3 Given the consensus that SDGs’ success largely depends on India’s achieving them, an appraisal of its performance in critical social sectors, including those associated with the SDGs left out of VNR, becomes necessary.

Poverty and Inequality

The thrust of India’s VNR is that rapid economic growth has sharply reduced poverty.4 A 2018 study backs this claim saying extreme poverty is declining in India at rate of 44 people per minute as a result of which, since May 2018, India no longer has largest number of poor people.5 Despite this dramatic poverty reduction, over 73 million Indians still live below the international poverty line.6 Most of these people subsisting on less than US$1.90 a day are in rural areas. Even as the absolute numbers of poor fall there is rapid rise in inequality. Be it income, consumption, or assets, India ranks among countries with highest inequality.7 A 2018 Oxfam report says India’s richest 1 percent garnered 73 percent of national wealth generated in 2017.8 Its 2017 report showed this 1 percent held 58 percent of India’s total wealth (global figure was 50%).9 Fairer taxation and public spending policies can help reduce inequality.

In 2017 the Finance Minister accepted that India’s tax policy was not socially just and made assurances that the tax net would be widened.10 There has been some success as direct tax receipts rose 19 percent in a year, mostly from increased personal income tax collection.11 However, corporate income tax cuts continue, leading to an estimated revenue loss of US$1.1 billion (Rs 7,000 crore) for 2018-2019.12 Meanwhile, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme that has lifted millions out of poverty since 2005 has seen slowing budgetary support, with allocations unchanged between 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, a fall in real terms.13 This has resulted in delays in wage payments, non-payment of compensation for these delays, rationing of available work (to levels far lower than the guaranteed 100 days paid work), and non-payment of minimum wages.14 The magnitude of this denial of entitlements to India’s poorest can be gauged from the fact that accumulated unpaid wages alone add up to around US$700 million (Rs 4,786 crore) as of January 2018.15

Rising inequality in India not only causes poverty of income or assets but also leads to unequal access to basic needs - food, livelihood, water and sanitation, health and education. These disparities disproportionately affect historically marginalized groups such as Dalits, tribals and Muslims, with women in each group worse off.16


India’s VNR says the National Food Security Act (NFSA) now provides food grains to over 800 million poor people; talks up the use of digital technology to prevent leakage in entitlements; and lists the Mid-Day Meal Programme and the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) as key initiatives improving child and maternal nutrition.17 The UN’s Hunger Report 2017 shows that while numbers have fallen over a decade, with 190 million (14.5%) people still undernourished, India has world’s largest food insecure population.18 Field reports show that the linkage of food grain entitlements with Aadhaar, the national, unique biometric identification cards, is leading to many rightful beneficiaries, especially tribals, getting excluded due to absence of Aadhaar, biometric authentication failures and connectivity issues.19

Malnourishment disproportionately impacts children and women. A 2017 report shows that although India has reduced the number of stunted and underweight children over a decade, even then it is home to half the world’s undernourished children, with all of these under 5 years of age, 37 percent being underweight, 39 percent stunted, 21 percent wasted (a decadal increase), and 8 percent acutely malnourished.20 Also, India’s latest National Family Health Survey revealed while the number of women aged 15-49 years who are underweight fell from 35 percent in 2005-2006 to 23 percent in 2015-2016, 55 percent of the women in this reproductive age group are anaemic.21 This can impact the health of their future pregnancies and children. Yet, NFSA provisions have been diluted whereby maternity entitlement, critical for mother and child health, in the form of cash transfer after live birth, has been cut from Rs 6,000 to Rs 5,000 and restricted to first delivery only.22 Allocations for ICDS in 2018-2019 are inadequate to meet the increased costs of its Supplementary Nutrition Programme, which provides free food and rations for children under age 6 and for pregnant and lactating mothers.23


India’s VNR focuses on the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture, which provides soil health cards and crop insurances to mitigate impact of climate change and sustain agricultural productivity.24 It does not address the reason why despite being world’s second largest food producer,25 India’s 300,000 farmers have killed themselves since 1998.26 So, to double the farmers’ income by 2022, India’s 2018-2019 budget assured a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for all crops that is at least 50 percent more than production cost.27 The MSP has been raised for summer sown crops, especially nutritionally rich coarse grains, in 2018. However, a poor procurement mechanism,29 as well as 86 percent of farmers with no marketable surplus,30 has meant that only 6 percent of farmers actually get MSP.31 The focus on agri-insurance (to protect loss of farm income due to privatization of public services) and a hiked MSP (without a robust procurement system) are unlikely to help most of the 43 percent32 in the farm sector or to improve food security.

Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)

UNICEF reports that as much as 50 percent of malnourishment is not due to lack of food or poor diets “but due to poor water quality, poor sanitation facilities, and unhygienic practices”.33 Since 2014, India has prioritized providing safe drinking water and improved sanitation for all, the SDG 6 aim. Yet, its VNR has no information on SDG 6. Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is India’s flagship programme to achieve universal sanitation coverage and eradicate open defecation by 2019. With 16 (of 35) states becoming Open Defecation Free (ODF) by April 2018,34 and a World Bank funded survey finding that 77 percent of rural households now have toilets,35 there is progress towards target of an ODF India by 2 October 2019. However, the ambition of meeting the 2019 deadline lacks budgetary backing as with just a year left the SBM budget has been cut by 7 percent.36 Besides, there is less attention on behavioural change. The survey revealed that despite 77 percent rural households having toilets, over 6 percent of those with access to toilets still don’t regularly use them.37 Also, the focus on sanitation has been accompanied by neglect of access to drinking water, particularly for marginalized communities, with the budget for the National Rural Drinking Water Programme actually declining by 36 percent from 2014-2015 to 2018-2019.38


India, its VNR states, made improvements in many basic health indicators such as Infant and Child Mortality Rates, institutional deliveries, and vaccination coverage. It also says its National Health Mission (NHM) and National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS) will ensure health care for all Indians. However, Government health spending remains at only 1.4 percent of GDP, far from world average of 6 percent, or even goal of 2.5 percent of GDP by 2025, set in its National Health Policy 2017.39 This means per capita public spending on health in India is paltry US$ 20 (Rs 1,397) a year, among lowest in world.40 WHO says it’s hard to ensure universal health coverage at less than 4-5 percent of GDP.41

As it stands now, the Government expenditure on health is 30 percent of total expenditure on health in India, while 70 percent of total expenditure is borne out of pocket (OOP).42 This disproportionately high OOP health spending, a result of low public spending, puts financial burden on households and pushes 7 percent Indians back into poverty each year.43 A focus on providing NHPS insurance (which doesn’t cover out-patient treatment, the main health expense for most households), as principal means of assuring health in 2018-2019 budget, while cutting allocation to NHM, the largest programme for primary health infrastructure, reflects a continuing trend of diverting more state resources to insurance schemes and the private sector, thereby further weakening the public health system.44


India’s VNR does not cover education. While Right to Education (RTE) Act 2010 assures free education for all children aged 6-13 years thereby bringing them all to elementary school, Gross Enrolment Ratio rapidly falls after elementary school, to just 54 percent by secondary school level, and over half the children drop out by senior school level.45 There are concerns about learning outcomes as a study shows 25 percent students aged 14-18 years can’t read a basic text in their mother tongue.46 RTE mandates basic standards that only 8 percent government schools fulfill.47 Yet, share of education in GDP fell from 0.55 percent in 2014-2015 to 0.45 percent in 2018-2019, despite the Government target of 6 percent of GDP,48 and the World Bank data showing that the global average is 4.3 percent of GDP.49


India is on a high growth trajectory with increased global ambitions. Its allocation for foreign aid in the 2018-2019 budget is more than a billion dollars (Rs 7,659 crore). Despite that, many Indians live in extreme deprivation.


1 See UN Secretary-General, Voluntary Common Reporting Guidelines for Voluntary National Reviews at the High-Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development, 2017, p. 3; available at:

2 See Government of India, Voluntary National Review Report on the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goals to United Nations High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, NITI Ayog, New Delhi, 2017, p.vii; available at;

3 See W.P.S. Sidhu, “Another Development Task for India”, Mint, 16 September 2015; available at:

4 See Government of India, VNR, 2017 p.7.

5 See Homi Kharas, Kristofer Hamel, and Martin Hofer, “The Start of a New Poverty Narrative”, Brookings Blog, 19 June 2018; available at: The Brookings Institution study uses World Data Lab’s “World Poverty Clock” data. To see latest data on India, scroll down and click on India’s map, at:

6 See Kharas et al., 2018.

7 See Himanshu (2018), The Widening Gaps: India Inequality Report 2018, Oxfam India, p. 20; available at;

8 See Oxfam International, Reward Work, Not Wealth, Oxfam International, 2018; available at:, cited in The Wire Staff, “Richest 1% Cornered 73% of Wealth Generated in India in 2017: Oxfam Survey”, The Wire, 22 January 2018; available at:

9 See Oxfam International, An Economy for the 99%, Oxfam International, 2017; available at; Cited in The Wire Staff, “Richest 1% Cornered 73% of Wealth Generated in India in 2017: Oxfam Survey”, The Wire, 22 Januar y2018; available at:

10 See Arun Jaitley, Budget 2017-18, Speech delivered on 1 February 2017 in Parliament of India: New Delhi, pp. 20, 28-29; available at:

11 See Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, Of Hits and Misses: An Analysis of Union Budget 2018-19, CBGA New Delhi, 2018,p. 66; available at:

12 The estimated revenue loss is presented as ‘Statement of Revenue Foregone’ in India’s budget. See Arun Jaitley, Budget 2018-19; Speech delivered on 1 February2018 in Parliament of India: New Delhi, p. 28; available at:

13 See “NREGA Budget for 2018-19 Falls in Real Terms”, Counter Currents, 2 February 2018; available at:

14 Ibid.

15 See Table 3 on Pending Liabilities in: NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, “Allocate Rs 80,000 Crore for MGNREGA to Overcome Monetary Drought Mounting Every Day”, Counter Currents, 30 January 2018: available at:

16 See Sukhadeo Thorat, and Nidhi Sadana Sabharwal (2011), “Addressing the Unequal Burden of Malnutrition”, India Health Beat 5(5), 2011. Cited in Himanshu, The Widening Gaps: India Inequality Report 2018, Oxfam India, 2018, p.11; available at:

17 See Government of India, VNR, 2017, pp. 9-10.

18 See FAO,IFAD,UNICEF,WFP and WHO (2017), The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017, FAO Rome, 2017, pp. 80, 89; available at:

19 See Ashok Kotwal and Bharat Ramaswmi, “Aadhaar That Doesn’t Exclude”, The Indian Express, 13 February 2018; available at:

20 See Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Ernst and Young, Bridging the Gap: Tapping the Agriculture Potential for Optimum Nutrition, ASSOCHAM-EY. Cited in PTI, “India has largest number of malnourished children in the world: Report”, Mint, 1 November 2017; available at:

21 See International Institute for Population Sciences, National Family Health Survey-4: India Fact Sheet, Government of India, 2015/16, p. 7; available at:

22 See “Budget: Taking Stock of Promises-Spending in Social Sectors”, p.23, in Sonalika Sinha and Bijoy Patro (eds.), Promises and Reality: Citizens’ Report on Four Years of the NDA Government 2014-2018, Wada Na Todo Abhiyan New Delh, 2018.

23 See Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, 2018; pp. 35-36.

24 See Government of India 2017; pp. 10-11.

25 See B2B Bureau, “India: An Agricultural Powerhouse of the world”, Business Standard, 18May2016; available at:

26 See P. Sainath/PARI, “A Long March of the Dispossessed to Delhi”, The Wire, 23 June 2018; available at:

27 See Arun Jaitley, Budget 2018-19, p. 4.

28 See Vishwa Mohan, “MSP of 14 Kharif Crops Hiked, Millet Growers to Benefit”, The Times of India, 5 July 2018; available at:

29 Ibid.

30 See Nilachala Acharya, “Doubling Farmer’s Income: Is Budget 2018 in the Right Direction”, 2018; available at:

31 See The Wire Staff, “After Prolonged Delay, MSPS for Kharif Season Announced with Substantial Increases”, The Wire, 4 July 2018; available at:

32 The data on employment in agriculture is for 2017 and from International Labour Organization’s database. See

33 United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), “UNICEF in Action: Better Sanitation and Hygiene”, Accessed 1 July 2018 at:

34 Anisha Bhatia, “We are Confident that India will Become an Open Defecation Free Country Before October 2019 Deadline: Government”, NDTV, 26 Apri l2018; available at:

35 Priscilla Jebaraj, “All Kerala, Mizoram Households are Open Defecation Free”, 31 March 2018, The Hindu.

36 See Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, 2018, p. 32.

37 See Priscilla Jebaraj, “All Kerala, Mizoram Households are Open Defecation Free”.

38 See “Budget: Taking Stock of Promises-Spending in Social Sectors”, pp. 19-20.

39 See Nivedita Rao, “Who Is Paying for India's Healthcare?”, 14 April 2018, The Wire; available at:

40 See Aditi Tandon, “Govt Spends Paltry Rs 1,112 on Health of Every Citizen”, 19June2018, The Tribune; available at:

41 See WHO, The World Health Report 2010, WHO Geneva, p.98. Cited in M. Jowett, et al., Spending Targets for Health: No Magic Number, WHO Geneva, 2016, p. 4; available at:;jsessionid=B4DDF668CBA733E2684C80C32358AB61?sequence=1

42 See Nivedita Rao, “Who Is Paying for India's Healthcare?”

43 Ibid.

44 See “Budget: Taking Stock of Promises-Spending in Social Sectors”, p.20.

45 See Subodh Varma, “Share of Spend in Government Expenditures, GDP on Education Falling for 3 Years, 6 February 2017, The Times of India; available at:

46 See PRATHAM (2017), Annual Survey of Education Report: Summary, PRATHAM, p. 2; available at:

47 IANS, “Only 8% Schools Comply with RTE Act, Says RTE Forum”, 27March2018, Business Standard; available at:

48 See “Budget: Taking Stock of Promises-Spending in Social Sectors”, p.19.

49 See World Bank, Global Expenditure on Education as % of GDP, 2016; available at;