The United Nations (UN) adopted 17-Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. All members of the UN including India are committed to these global goals. The SDGs are inextricably intertwined for the holistic development of communities and nations and aim to achieve prosperous and peaceful living for human beings, ensuring food, nutrition, and health security for all. Concerted efforts are, however, required to secure future human, economic, and natural capital to achieve these goals.
With the promulgation of the SDGs, sustainability debate became more prominent in matters concerning governance and public policy but the achievements reflecting sustainable development through private and public sector projects and schemes are too meagre. Sustainability dimensions are neither understood nor codified as per the governance requirements and aspirations. Governments have not formulated sustainability codes, and short-term political priorities and bureaucratic expediency overshadow the pillars of sustainability.
Often ignored, sustainability is defined and attempted differently in varying contexts. It primarily means meeting our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It implies equity in social and economic development without adversely impacting the rights and entitlements of the next generations. We have no right to grow or develop, mortgaging the future of our next generations. The Academic Committee for the office of sustainability at the University of Alberta, USA has defined sustainability as a process of living within limits of available physical, natural and social resources in ways that enable the living systems in which humans thrive in perpetuity.
The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), known as the Brundtland Commission, observed that the world needed to find a way to harmonise ecology with prosperity. It defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The Commission combined environmentalism with socio-economic concerns on development.
Sustainability is, in fact, an approach that considers ecological, social, and economic dimensions of development to find durable and long-term prosperity. Three sustainability pillars are environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and social sustainability.
Environmental sustainability means that natural resources within the earth’s environmental systems should be kept in balance, maintaining its ecological integrity. These should be consumed by humans at a rate whereby they can replenish themselves. Economic sustainability implies that human communities across the globe should maintain their independence and have access to the resources-financial and others required by them to meet their needs. Social sustainability emphasises that universal human rights and necessities should be attainable by all people who have access to enough resources to keep their families and communities healthy and secure.
Sustainability ensures that economic systems remain intact and secure sources of livelihood and healthy communities with equal respect for the cultural rights of everyone without any discrimination. However, this does not seem to be happening. The reckless damage is being caused to human, economic, and natural resources either due to short-term, not so appreciable priorities of the political executives or because of unreasonable and unjustified lust for gains that are neither due nor required. The materialistic values, overtaking the moral and cultural values with total disregard for the loss of ecology reflected through the climate changes, is the bane of unsustainable development.
Despite the UN’s emphasis on SDGs, sustainability of outcomes of government’s decisions and public policies both for private and public sectors is rarely pursued as the main aspect of decision-making. Lack of vision, information, and data and emphasis on short-term gains quell the thrust on long-term implications of public welfare to achieve equity and equality in growth in the most harmless manner. Sustainability is a key performance indicator in externally aided projects, but none of the existing administrative, financial, or technical codes for the conduct of government business define sustainability requirements. Even in externally aided projects, violations of sustainability requirements are not uncommon. Also, without building the capacity of establishments to appreciate and achieve sustainability as the goal of governance, the SDGs may not be achieved.
Among the unsustainable decisions, actions, and policies, some of the issues in public debate are lack of sustainability of the agriculture operations, unsustainable freebies, and subsidies without clearly defined social contracts and obligations. These are threatening the national food and nutritional security and are also the cause of economic decay and financial stress that the next generations may not be able to bear. Instead of unsustainable ways of living that damage natural, human and economic resources, the governments should look at more long-term and durable actions to secure future human, economic, and natural capital. For this, alongside the naturalisation of agriculture and its allied sectors and the development of more green, resilient, and inclusive infrastructure shall be targeted for equitable and balanced growth. Adoption of resource conservation technologies, intense jobs, and business-oriented skilling, even at the cost of the state, which makes the youth employable in the changing labour markets, should be preferred. Public investment in health and education should increase by repurposing the existing subsidies, which may remain restricted to only those, who are unable to get jobs or are disabled to earn their livelihood. The remaining population should be assisted and enabled for gainful employment or work, and that may perhaps be the more appropriate way forward for sustainable development. The new social security contracts should aim to empower the people instead of making them dependent on doles, reforming the age-old social contracts preferred by archaic political and bureaucratic establishments.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.