Nagrik Dialogue

Sustainable Development Goals: From a distinct lens

By Sahil Malhotra, SDG Youth Ambassador, SDG16 Goal Keeper

‘Life is as simple as we allow it to be‘

United Nations in its zealous endeavour to bring peace and prosperity on the planet has set up seventeen goals, commonly called ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. These goals are akin to basic traits essential for upholding human/fundamental rights, accepted by most nation-states. The true spirit of these goals lies in empirically developing planet to establish a just order worldwide, with a minimum excursion into the environment. These goals came in force from the year 2015 and would remain in operation till 2030. These goals reflect the wraith of the world, as to what the world wants i.e. happiness and serenity for all. However, a question that remains of paramount importance is how fast we are able to achieve these goals. And even prior to this, a cardinal question which is placed at a higher pedestal is, have homo sapiens been able to comprehend the real essence of these goals? Can it be affirmatively asserted that the majority of human beings know what sustainable development goals are pointing at?

The article is an attempt to answer the questions hereinabove raised vis-à-vis the need for sustainable development goals, their awareness among masses, and achievement expeditiously. This paper further makes an endeavour to decipher the purpose for which these goals came into existence. Noteworthy it is, that views hereinbelow expressed with respect to the topic are not to be confused with the purposes enunciated by United Nation, but it is only a travail to throw more light while being in concurrence with the same.


Equality, basic human rights such as food, drinking water, safe environment are summum bonum for human existence. Sustainable development goals are an echo of these basic human rights. It is a blueprint towards a better and reliable future for generations together. The global concerns which have haunted some of the most powerful countries are envisaged in these goals. These seventeen goals are:-

  1. No poverty
  2. Zero Hunger
  3. Good health and Wellbeing
  4. Quality Education
  5. Gender Equality
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  10. Reduced Inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on Land
  16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions; and
  17. Partnerships    


Amongst others, most of these goals are cognates of fundamental rights elucidated in part III of the Indian Constitution. The Hon’ble Apex Court through its varied judgments has enlarged compass of part III, which is enclosing most of the sustainable development goals under its realm.[1] Before proceeding further, it is apposite to gaze briefly at the background of SD goals.    

Brief Background

The relationship between Humans and Environment is symbiotic and has been revered since time immemorial. Commencing from the Vedic period, cutting trees, and causing harm to crops were considered as sinful acts.[2] Trees such as Peepal, Banyan, Beal are amongst few which are/were considered sacred and revered in India. Lately, due to mass expansion in population and deterioration of natural resources together with de-escalating of flora and fauna, a need was felt at the international level to join hands and save mother earth from abhorrent acts of mankind. Exorbitant consumption of natural resources without thinking about future generations led to the formulation of the doctrine of sustainable development. Consequently, the first United Nations Conference on Human Environment to safeguard the rights of families to a healthy environment took place in Stockholm in 1972. Pursuant to this, through World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983, defined the term sustainable development. Accordingly, sustainable development meant meeting the needs of the present time without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.[3] In 1992, Rio Declaration, also known as earth summit was a key step put-forth by nations together in respect of sustainable development. This twelve-day conference empathetically postulated that predominantly, for the protection of human beings, efforts are required to be made by human beings unitedly. Rio Declaration states that human beings hold the arch for protection of future beings, therefore, maximum efforts are essentially required to be put in by them. The backwash of the Rio declaration led to the derivation of eight Millennium Development Goals signed by 191 nations in year 2000.[4] In 2015, when Millennium Development Goals culminated it made way for Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainable Development Goals are analogous to Millennium Development Goals with some trifle variations.            

Meaning of Sustainable Development

On the outset, it is germane to understand the meaning of sustainable development because without understanding its meaning, its effective implementation would be a painstaking effort to achieve. Worthwhile, it is to have a collective understanding of sustainable development goals amongst masses for its successful implementation. Alan S. Cajes, a renowned philosopher and anthropologist, in his book ‘Philosophy of Sustainable development: A Critique’ has dispelled that sustainable development is an abstract concept with varied interpretations and connotations. This concept is complex and challenging as it revamps itself with time.[5]    

Professor Dr. Jeffrey D. Sachs in his work considers sustainable development as defining concept with respect to human lives. He considers sustainable development goals as stalwart for changing the global direction. In his book on sustainable development he mentions that capacity of earth has remained the same since inception of mankind. However, population has humongously escalated which has constrained human beings to ponder upon concepts like sustainable development. Dr. Sachs refers to extinct species and assigns excessive consumption of natural resources by human beings as one of the reasons for the same.[6]

Michael Green, a political expert from Japan and senior advisor to Centre for Strategic and International Studies while interpreting sustainable development goals opined that these are goals as to what humanity wants them to be.[7]

Sustainable Development as defined by the Brundtland Report means :

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs“.

Therefore, sum total which can be attributed while arduously comprehending works of jurists and philosophers is that sustainable development goals are no different than the natural school of law. Like traits of natural law that postulate natural law as a constant body of permanent rule originating from divinity, elements of environment such as plants, trees, natural resources, etc have also originated from divinity. Meaning thereby that there is no intervention of human beings in the creation of both principles of natural law and realm of the environment. As natural law is considered a creation of God, similarly environment is also creation of God. As earlier canvassed, environment is considered sacrosanct and some trees and plants are still adulated since Vedic period. When such high importance is attributed to the environment, degrading it or using it for disadvantage to the future should not only be a criminal act but an act of highest immorality, which a wrongdoer should and must feel guilty in his own court of consciousness.            

What is the essence of Sustainable Development Goals?

The real essence of sustainable development goals lies in understanding the basic needs of human beings for now and for generations to come. One must understand that things which are required for survival in the extant times, future generations would also be requiring the same. It is no more res-Integra that sustainable development is the need of the moment. If homo sapiens claim themselves to be human beings then they must possess humane attitude towards coming generations. SD Goals do not speak at a different wavelength, their endeavour is to make everyone understand that if human beings don’t take hold of things right now, future generations won’t pardon them for their negligence and cynical acts. Human beings have already caused immense damage to the environment. Although there were/are laws in place for the protection of the same, howbeit, it won’t be incorrect to suggest that same lay stacked in statute books and have not travelled beyond to protect and preserve the environment. The clock is ticking, if endeavours are not made towards successfully achieving SDGs it’s going to get harder and harder with the passage of every single day.

Environmental concerns vis-a-vis Sustainable development

Sooner or later, we will have to recognise that Earth has rights too, to live without pollution. What people should understand is that earth does not need us, but we need earth for our survival.[8]

It is significant to note that presently environment is confronted with numerous predicaments. Acid rain, water pollution, climate change, ozone layer depletion, global warming and many more. Amongst all, India is severely hit by air pollution which is worthy to note. Deterioration of the environment due to air pollution has been at an alarming rise since the past few decades.[9] In an article published by the Indian Journal of Community Medicine, Dr. Sanjeev Kumar Gupta portrays a study wherein he deciphers that level of air pollution in Delhi has increased up to five times in a span of a decade (1990-2000). He further asserts that this has been a major reason for the increase in heart deceases among Delhiites and persons residing in Non-Capital Regions.[10] Mainly in the garb of developmental growth, per incuriam chemical factories and industries are excreting a large number of pollutants in the air. Such acts have severely affected the environment and ecology. It is significant to note that in 2018= when air pollution in London rose from its limit of 10 MG/Cubic meter to 20 MG/Cubic meter, some members of British parliament asserted that it is a staid situation and under such set of circumstances the government should declare air pollution as ‘National Health Emergency’[11]. Per Contra, air pollution in India is 110 MG/Cubic meter which is way more than London, however, no concrete steps have been taken in this direction so far. The facts revealed hereinabove are just the tip of the iceberg. The ground reality is much shoddier.

Akin to air pollution, there are a plethora of other reasons which contribute to environmental pollution and degradation. Nonetheless, they are not made part of this study for the sake of brevity.

The environment has somewhat corresponding attributes to ‘Stoicism’[12]. With the amount of harm already caused to the environment, had environment not been so patient to take all that homo sapiens have thrown at it, it would have puked out long back. Like followers of stoicism, the environment has so far placidly accepted almost all evil deeds of mankind. Although, it is uncertain as to how long would the environment be able to take it. A preeminent takeaway at this moment is to recognize that environment has suffered a lot and it has reached a saturation point whereupon downfall is inevitable. The only way to save human lives as well the environment is to eschew iniquitous acts and march towards sustainable development as this seems to be the only way forward. ‘Our Common Future‘ has remained the agenda which countries unitedly have strived to achieve. Although it cannot be said with vigour that International Conventions along with other stakeholders have been able to scalp and eradicate the menace. However, sober-sided endeavours have been witnessed. Be it Stockholm or Rio-Declaration or Paris Agreement, the United Nations has shown its deep concern with respect to the environment. Nation-states across the globe have accepted that Sustainable Development is the balancing concept between ecology and development and thus it cannot be refuted. This analogy is also recognized as part of the Customary International law, though its salient features have yet to be finalized by the International law Jurists.

Since inception as many as 190 countries are part of sustainable development programme. Although the journey so far has not even reached half way, but it is relevant to showcase as to what all nation states are doing in achieving these goals.   

Progress on Sustainable Development Goals so far (2015-2020)

In order to estimate effective implementation of sustainable development goals social progress index is ruminated, which measures the quality of life ranging from basic needs for survival including food, water, shelter and safety. Foundations of wellbeing which cover education, information, health and environment under its umbrella. And lastly in terms of opportunity such as claims, rights, liberty and access to public resources. Although the social progress index isn’t measuring the effectiveness of sustainable development goals, however, fundamentally it is measuring corresponding concepts as enshrined in SDGs.

Michael Green in his work explains this concept in terms of percentage. According to him, if successful achievement of all SDGs is 100 percent then initially when the SDGs program began in 2015 it was at 69.1 percent. Meaning thereby that the test of effective fulfilment of all goals starts from 69.1 percent.[13] He contends that country which is expected to achieve these goals soonest is Denmark whereas the Central African Republic is farthest in achieving the same. The rest of the countries are expected to be placed somewhere between Denmark and Central African Republic by 2030. As per his analyses Denmark, Germany, and Japan are expected to achieve these goals by 2030. However, some of the richest countries of the world such as Canada, France, United Kingdom, and Italy are all going to fall short in achieving these goals. United States of America is expected to reach close to 90 percent in fulfilment of SD goals by 2030, with a remaining deficit of 10 percent.[14]

Per contra, amongst most populous countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico, Philippines and Ethiopia, Mexico is expected to achieve the maximum success with respect to sustainable development goals. Mexico is expected to reach close to 87 percent. Whereas Russia, China and Indonesia are expected to get close to 82 percent, 81 percent and 81 percent respectively.[15]

With current progress, India is expected to achieve around 71 percent success in implementing SD goals. Worthwhile it is, to note that as per Niti Aayog SDG index, Kerala is working at the fastest pace in achieving SDGs. However, Bihar is one state which is working with the slowest pace. It is significant to note that Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim are among few states which are front-runners, barring Kerala. Whereat one hand, it can be claimed at SDG No. 6 i.e. clean water and sanitation is to an extent achieved in some areas of the country. The implementation of SDG No. 2 i.e. zero hunger still remains a major concern for India.[16]      

At the world level, there is a slight lift in percentage as in the year 2018, the percentage has increased by one and a half percent approximately. Michael Green foresees and expects that if the development goes with the same progress, the world unitedly would successfully attain 100 percent effective implementation of SD goals by 2094. Therefore, one thing prima-facie candid is that with current progress, there won’t be any substantial achievement in fulfilling sustainable development goals. The next big question comes is what is the way forward.

The Road Ahead

It is unequivocally clear that with current progress India would reach nowhere in terms of fulfilling sustainable development goals. As enunciated by the Supreme Court of India in a catena of Judgments, sustainable development is necessary for not only the protection of the environment but for human beings as well. The courts have time and again reminded that sustainable development is the need of the extant status and cannot be side-lined. All stakeholders are required to work together and industries or factories which emit pernicious chemicals in air and water cannot keep working in a clandestine manner. [17] Natural resource such as drinking water is hard to find in some areas of the world and time is not far where individuals would wage war for water due to its expected acute shortage. It is always to be remembered that these natural resources are permanent assets of mankind and are not intended to be exhausted by one generation.[18]

Sustainable development goals encompasses intergenerational equity as one of its key feature in fulfilment of the same. Persons of all age groups must extract true meaning and purport of intergenerational equity. This concept along with sustainable development is firmly embedded in our constitutional jurisprudence as an integral part of fundamental rights conferred by Article 21 of the constitution.[19]

It is worthwhile to understand that sustainable development goals are not for one country, or two countries, it is for the entire world. Therefore, every country should work in solidarity in fulfilling its SD goals. Out of the seventeen goals, every country should segregate these goals in three categories. In the first category, a country should see which goals are being easily achieved. In the second category, such goals should be included which can be achieved by toiling hard and lastly in the third category such goals should be kept which are the real issues with such country. This might help countries to understand where they need to work more and where they need to invest less time and energy.

Sahil Malhotra
Advocate, Himachal Pradesh High Court Research Scholar, Himachal Pradesh National Law University

Another astonishing aspect of the matter is, as per statistics, reports, and data, Bangladesh is one country which if it goes on working with the same zeal, might successfully achieve sustainable development goals by 99 percent. It is evident that progress in Bangladesh is remarkable. It has set an example for other countries to follow and earnestly strive to achieve these goals by 2030. All beings must understand that these goals if fulfilled, are going to benefit human beings. It is for the betterment, peace, protection, and longer life of human beings. Therefore, if a sense of sympathy is attained by human beings against the environment and maximum labour is ploughed in achieving these goals it will not only ensure the wellbeing of the current generation but future generation as well.

Peace, Development, and Environment are indivisible and interdependent concepts. Without the existence of one another, two can’t exist, and sum total of all these concepts is sustainable development. Therefore,  if sustainable development goals are achieved, it would automatically bring world peace, growth and development with greener earth.  


This is a matter of grave concern and cannot be taken lightly at any cost. Natural resources are of utmost importance for human survival and without it, human existence is impossible to imagine. To sum up, it is imperative to understand that it is not solely the duty of government, be it central or state, to achieve sustainable development goals, rather this exercise is required to be carried out by individuals collectively at their own level. Much contemplation and deliberations have taken place in this regard, the need of the minute is to stop talking and start making efforts. Small efforts made by individuals at large would surely help in a big way.                  

Everything that exists in this world, there is some value attached to it. What human beings need to appreciate is that environment is exorbitantly precious and cannot be equated in terms of money. To protect and preserve something so topflight becomes a sine qua non. Here, all beings can draw inspiration from the works and lifestyle of Immanuel Kant which is of utmost significance. Kant in his work ‘Categorical Imperative’ states that “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” What can be inferred from Kant’s work is that human beings should refrain from doing such acts which they do not want others to do to them. Likewise, human beings should refrain from acts detrimental to the environment and sustainably use natural resources, because in case nature takes revenge of all nefarious deeds which human beings have done, the extent of harm would be much more than perpetrated by humans and would be beyond repair.    

[1] Lafarge Umiam Mining Pvt. Ltd. v. Union of India & Ors., (2011) 7 S.C.C. 338.
[2] Tanwar R. Environment Conservation In Ancient India [Internet]. 2020 [cited 18 June 2020]. Available from: 
Source Link.
[3] Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future [Internet]. 2020 [cited 18 June 2020]. Available from: 
Source Link.
[4] WHO | Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) [Internet]. 2020 [cited 21 June 2020]. Available from: 
Source Link
[5] Alan S. Cajes, Philosophy of Sustainable development: A Critique 25(Compendume Publishing, Manila-Philippines, 2011).   
[6] Jeffrey D. Sachs, ‘The Age of Sustainable Development’ 14 (Columbia University Press, NewYork-United States, 2015).
[7] 5. Green M. Skoll | Michael Green [Internet]. 2020
Available from: Source Link.
[8] Evo Morales, Former President of Bolivia.
[9] 3. Top 25 Brutal Environmental Concerns That You Desperately Need To Know – Conserve Energy Future [Internet]. Conserve Energy Future. 2020
. Available from: Source Link.
[10] Rizwan, Sa et al. “Air pollution in Delhi: Its Magnitude and Effects on Health”. Indian journal of community medicine : official publication of Indian Association of Preventive & Social Medicine vol. 38,1 (2013): 4-8. doi:10.4103/0970-0218.106617.
[11] Report prepared by Dhruv Rathee in his work titled “World’s Worst Pollution! | India v/s Europe Analysis by Dhruv Rathee” available at – 
Source Link.
[12] Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.
[14] Supra note 6.; [15] Id.;
[16] Kerala tops SDG index; Bihar at last rank [Internet]. The Hindu. 2020 [cited 24 June 2020]. Available from: 
Source Link.
[17] Rural Litigation And Entitlement Kendera v. State Of Uttar Pradesh, (1988) 2 Scale 493.
[18] Rural Litigation And Entitlement Kendra And Ors; Devaki Nandan Pandey v. State Of Uttar Pradesh & Ors. AIR 1987 SC 359.
[19] Goa Foundation v. Union of India & Ors., (2014) 6 S.C.C. 590.

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