Nagrik Dialogue

Who should build back better and for whom? Reimagining Responsibilities for Sustainability

Radhika Ralhan & Dr. Ankita Mookherjee

This week the world virtually unites amidst the pandemic in the 75th United Nations General Assembly, to take stock of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The pandemic has unleashed unforeseen crisis all over the world and has increased the challenges to achieve the SDGs. While the damage has been extensive to lives and economies, some countries face greater challenges ahead than the others. India witnessed the largest lockdown in the world as a response to Covid-19 and now faces key challenges with regards to extensive layoffs, shutting of key businesses and declining job markets. The pandemic has once again laid bare the structural inequalities that underlie our societies. The economically and socially deprived ones in the population have been worst hit, informal workers who comprise nearly 60% of the backbone of Indian economy have been rendered hand to mouth and are struggling to make a living. Alongside, the inequalities faced by women have also grown exponentially and they too have been badly hit by loss of livelihoods. Thus, posing new challenges in achieving SDG 1 no poverty’, SDG 10 reduced inequalities, and SDG 5 gender equality.

A recent projection by UN Women and UNP states that the impact of global poverty will be felt excessively by young Asian women, as by 2030 as there will be 129 poor women from 118 in 2021, the loss of jobs by women has further lowered their participation in the workforce. While the deprivations have multiplied for those who have always been at a disadvantage, things haven’t been any better for organised sectors and the white-collar workers.  The formal economy has not been spared with grim statistics that emerged showing that 19 million formal economy jobs have been lost (Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy – CIME). As one of the youngest and growing nations of the world, the country has to deal with  the  challenge of providing employment to nearly 41 lakhs of India’s youth who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic (ADB, ILO).  Matters are made more complex by the fact that several sectors including wholesale retail trade, manufacturing, rental business services, accommodation, and food services have been severely hit and even for those who are employed, growth would be stagnant in this financial year as only 23% of companies would be able to provide increments in 2021- 22 (Deloitte India’s Workforce and Increment Trends Survey). Estimates have been made that post pandemic India will require an annual GDP growth rate of 8-8.5% to accelerate its pace of employment and productivity. The pandemic along with acute climatic adversities such as floods and cyclones have made the task of achieving SDGs doubly difficult for India.

Terminologies such as ‘build, back, better’, ‘the new normal’ and  ‘new world order’, are afloat but we are yet to bring at the heart of the discourse “people”- who lie at the core of any sustainability agenda. While the SDGs provide us with a planning framework that delineates key targets and indicators, in a post-covid world and with just 3 years left to achieve the SDGs we need radical thinking and new ways of doing things. Voices of the young are critical as they constitute the workforce and represent new age consumers. In a similar tone, voices of women need to inform decision making rather than being merely participative.  The next 3 years and beyond are crucial because India will have to decide as to who would own, deliver, and govern the sustainability agenda? The pandemic revealed the power of common people who volunteered to provide response and relief to those in need. Many Indians who volunteered showcased true examples of being global responsible citizens, moreover they also influenced other actors such as government, civil society and most importantly the private sector to come forward and provide essential aid.  Private sector, which has always been a critical actor in achieving the SDGs, only next to the government, came to a standstill and faced a peculiar challenge in the face of reverse migration. It realised that neither CSR activities, nor heated discussions on issues over webinars and virtual conferences would bring about any solution. Instead they would need to invest time and efforts in bringing in new strategies to accelerate productivity. The SDGs stand for an integrated agenda, and therefore need to be understood and executed in their interlinkages.  Take for instance the goal of skilling the youth and making them market ready – SDG4 on quality education seen in tandem with SDG8 on decent work, need to address together discussions on creation of green jobs. The reverse migration from urban to rural areas in the face of the pandemic has created a situation where people are now embracing sustainable agriculture, renewable energy within rural villages as alternative forms of livelihoods. The reverse migration from urban to rural areas in the face of the pandemic has actually created a situation where we are at an opportune time to rethink these connections and look afresh at targets like creation of 90 million jobs within a brief span of time from 2023 to 2030.  Within such a discourse idea about high productivity sectors which can accommodate about 30 million workers would also get reshaped. Merely discussing education and skilling with no clear vision of how to incorporate these skills in the changing landscape of Indian economy is cosmetic. In a similar fashion any SDGs agenda within the private sector would be best achieved only when there is a “change” in the ownership of the sustainability agenda which up to now is being run largely by CSR, Communication heads in fancy conferences. However, only when the factory personnel, safety officers, heads of manufacturing, supply chains, packaging and safety who have rich empirical experiences will come forward and share their key sustainability initiatives and interventions will we observe progress in embedding sustainability in the value chain.Thiswill also further enhance the ESG investments dynamics, albeit indirectly, which will give emphasis to the “social” parameters rather than the prevalent parameters of environment and governance.  Companies need to move beyond complex reporting mechanisms that just show x no. of water saved to y no. of waste recycled -the 12.6 targets talks of sustainability reporting which really now needs to be altered and simplified. Numbers and reports on Sustainability are meaningless until they talk about social indicators and social impact within the paradigm of sustainable ecosystems. An ideal Indian sustainability team should include diversified profiles of  sustainability practitioners – such as  social scientists, environmentalists, safety, management and  financial professionals to name a few. Introducing professionals from varied backgrounds can help bring on board social impact sensitivities within the present discourse on sustainability which is dominant in the private sector and is at present largely governed by engineering mindsets.

The pandemic has multiplied our challenges but at the same time it has given us an opportunity to achieve the SDGs in an inclusive and holistic manner. In Indian context, with the tradition of conservations, preservations, our everyday lives were governed by the principles of sustainable responsible consumption, SDG12. The pandemic indirectly, ensured that we go back and embrace our traditional models of consumptions. For instance, we all went back to the Ayurvedic remedies for boosting our immunity, cooking traditional meals and reducing our daily consumptions to ensure that we could better manage our household savings, which were at a risk of getting depleted due to lack of regular earnings. Gandhian principles evoked in being ‘vocal for local’, reinstated the fact that going back to the roots needs to be the tone in our current times. Keeping at the core of everything SDG 17 on partnerships the onus to achieve the sustainable development agenda lies with businesses, civil society, academia, and most importantly with communities. It is critical to take on board each of these voices. UN Secretary General remarked, we are the first and the last generation who have the opportunity to achieve the SDGs, this is not far from truth.  A radical shift in doing projects, initiatives and even business must come about.  So instead of being fatigued with the plethora of non-productive conferences and virtual meetups, it is high time that we bring in a collective plan of action, a recovery plan on the lines of the doughnut model, green deals which emerge through collective conscious, action and voices of people across all sections of society. Indian sustainability discourse needs to now bring in those people, who will formulate critical action based initiatives imperative to achieve the SDG targets that India was lagging behind in the pre-Covid world and which have only escalated further in a post- Covid one. Creative leadership, critical thinking, multi-disciplinary teams, decision making by the youth and women will be critical in defining the new narrative on sustainability.

About the Authors:

Radhika Ralhan is an Atlas Corps Global Fellow selected in 2020 among the top 17 young leaders across the world, for her work as young sustainability impact strategist and change-maker.

Dr Ankita Mookherjee works as an Assistant Professor of Sociology under the aegis of West Bengal College Service Commission, West Bengal. She is also a researcher on issues of resilience and sustainability.

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Nagrik Dialogue is the face of Nagrik Foundation’s communication skills that comes in the form of a monthly magazine. It will work as a bridge for those working at the grass roots level and those who support them in any form and manner.