Author : Soumya Bhowmick

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Apr 17, 2020
Social inclusion: Making development truly sustainable

The rising trends in urbanization have often led to debates on the conflicting associations between development and environment. Advancement towards sustainable development should include the reconciliation between the various tenets of equity, efficiency and sustainability. This would involve solving the interconnections in the trinity of sustainomics between 1) economic growth, efficiency and stability; 2) environmental concerns, resources and wastes, alongside 3) social empowerment, institutions and inclusion. A larger debate is warranted on the interpretation of sustainability and the vagueness of the social pillar on which it rests, apart from the much explored ecological and economic ones.

The ideal precondition of giving development a sustainable character has been espoused in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with 17 broad Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This document, however, inexplicitly pledges to more than its claim of sustainable development - with its 41 references to the term ‘inclusive’ in various capacities such as ‘inclusive society’ and ‘inclusive growth’, it advertently communicates the interrelatedness of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘inclusive development’. In fact, the latter may be considered a subset of the former, representing the duality of the ecological and social pillars. The realisation of this overlapping space of the ‘social’ populated by the concepts of equity, participation and social cohesion among others has however been very limited.

NITI Aayog had first documented the performance of India on the implementation of the SDGs in the form of the SDG India Index 2018. The SDGs that are closely associated with social inclusiveness are – Goal 5 (gender equality), Goal 9 (inclusive industrialization), Goal 10 (reduced inequalities) and Goal 11 (sustainable cities and communities). On the SDG Index India, India scores a mere 36, 44 and 39 out of 100, in the realisation of Goal 5, 9 and 11 respectively. However, the score on SDG 10 was relatively better at 71 out of 100 – a phenomenon that can be attributed due to lack of sufficient measurable indicators depicting inequality and strong government policies in recent times for economic upliftment of the poorer classes.

Social exclusion is a very entrenched and systemic problem, as evidenced by the poor scores in Goal 5, 9 and 11 of NITI Aayog's SDG Index. The state of affairs hints at the operation of an exclusionary development. This is by virtue of the modus operandi of governance in India, which is characterised as ‘procedural’ as opposed to ‘participatory’ – electoralism and relatively more controlled methods versus organic involvement of the civil society, respectively. This characterization impedes the materialization of the socially inclusive precept inextricable from sustainable development. The lop-sidedness of development indicated by non-reception of benefits by mostly the poor, necessitates mitigation in the form of participatory approach to planning and governance.

The case for participation and social cohesion is exemplified by the revival of the Kaikondrahalli Lake in Bengaluru. Once a lake fed with freshwater surrounded by avifauna attracting groves, by the late 2000s, the lake had started falling into various stages of deterioration as its channels were blocked by inconsiderate construction and choked with debris or garbage; by 2007 it was reduced to a slushy infectious bed of sewage and waste. The plight of the lake had prompted an intervention by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP). Noting the failure of BBMP in similar previous projects, in 2008 a group of local residents sought involvement. With the help of expert ecologists and architects, they redesigned the project report to respond to local needs. Inclusivity was ensured through proposals like separate enclosures for idol immersion and provisions for cattle wash and domestic use catering to the neighbouring peri-urban villages.

This collaboration between BBMP and the locals allowed the retroactive reversal of the short-sighted development that had taken place, resulting in the successful restoration of the lake to its former glory. In addition, this example also lies at the heart of ‘participatory democracy’. ‘Procedural democracy’, on the other hand, has mostly left a trail of exclusionary development. The decentralisation envisaged in the Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 has vested in the state governments the power to not only identify and notify wetlands within their jurisdictions but also to keep a watch on prohibited activities, indirectly widening the ambit for permitted activities deemed fit by the state in ‘larger interest’. This kind of a skewed interpretation had been operationalized in the dealings of the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW) even before the existence of the Rules. Dubbed as the ‘kidneys of Kolkata’— with its complex system which allows the sewage of the city to be naturally treated while simultaneously sustaining bheries (fisheries) – the EKW is a source of sustenance for close to 60,000 people. The social significance implied by the mine of livelihood that the place is, has been overridden in favour of encroachment of the EKW to accommodate the eastward march of the city, to house Salt Lake City and later to hold up Rajarhat-New Town. Occasional talks of new flyovers, regularising construction cause fret to these stakeholders who are ‘collaterals’ in the larger narrative of development. However, the developmental activities could be made economically inclusive by arranging for alternative livelihood mechanisms for the concerned ‘collaterals’ in the area.

The two cases are fundamentally different in character and the form of ‘social inclusion’ they take. The revival of Kaikondrahalli Lake is the result of concerted action by the neighbouring community of people; the process was also inclusive of the needs of the residents of the bank of the lake, in incorporation of devoted areas for cattle and daily use. On the other hand, the controversy over EKW is essentially of the deprivation of livelihood. While the lakes stood for aesthetic, biodiversity and environmental value, the wetlands stand for their economic value to the wastewater fish cultivators and farmers.

Procedural approaches are founded on the premise of top-down methods of planning. One of the key criticisms of this kind of approach is that it concentrates the power at the centre to decide trade-offs between different parts and elements of the city at the expense of residents’ control over their local community. The alternative bottom-up approach, which should be successively adopted in our policy planning, mostly abates the problem of winners and losers by satisfying the basic needs of all strata of the population in equal measures.

The authors acknowledge the guidance and inputs by Dr. Anamitra Anurag Danda - Senior Visiting Fellow, ORF Kolkata – on this piece.

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Soumya Bhowmick

Soumya Bhowmick

Soumya Bhowmick is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy at the Observer Research Foundation. His research focuses on sustainable development and ...

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