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Your one-stop guide to the SDGs

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

A newbie's introduction to Earth's 17-point checklist for success.

Sustainable development by Nivedita Bansal

What is sustainability?

Some say it’s conserving forests, others say it’s switching out of fossil fuel, and then some. At its very basics, sustainability is about the future. It’s about ensuring that the way we use the resources made available to us today allows for these resources to be available for our future generations to enjoy.

A great way to understand the nuance of sustainability is through the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

An Introduction

You may have heard of these. They're usually the go-to catchphrase when discussing resource management, global development, egalitarianism, and everything in between. Conceived by the United Nations General Assembly back in 2015, they consist of 17 broad goals to be (mostly) achieved by 2030. These goals cover a wide variety of topics. Some are related to wealth and prosperity, such as eliminating poverty (Goal 1), decent economic growth (Goal 8), and responsible production & consumption (Goal 12). Others relate to social and environmental progress, like ensuring gender equality (Goal 5), climate action (Goal 13), and strong institutions for peace and justice (Goal 16). These goals serve as the UN's (and by extension the international community's) overarching mission statements. They also build on the Millennium Development Goals, whose targets had come to a close by 2015.

A country's progress in achieving these goals is measured using the various targets within each SDG. For example, one target of Goal 12 (ensuring sustainable consumption and production) is to reduce global per capita food waste and food losses. Within each of these targets are a set of indicators that help measure performance. The food waste and food loss indexes help quantify changes in per capita food waste and loss.

The SDGs and India — A Complicated Relationship

As a growing economic power with a large population, India's progress with the SDGs plays a crucial role in determining the world's overall progress. Decisions made here impact almost 1 in 5 people on the planet. Economic liberalization in the 90s, globalization in the 2010s, and a large, cheap workforce have allowed India to make substantial strides in various SDGs. It was a key reason why the Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty in half by 2015 was met and exceeded.

India is also the first country to institute a government-led method of measuring its progress in the SDGs. The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) issues the country's SDG Index, which tracks the progress on each of the SDGs (excluding Goal 17 due to lack of indicators). A point-based system out of 100 tracks states' performance in each of the SDGs. By aggregating these scores, each state's overall progress can also be tracked, along with that of the country. Scoring above 65 places a state in the highest performing tier ("Front Runner"). States scoring between 50 and 64 are labeled as "Performers". Those in the lowest bracket (with scores between 0 and 49) are known as "Aspirants".

In its most recent issue (early 2020), India has shown significant improvements in health (Goal 3), clean water (Goal 6), affordable energy (Goal 7), infrastructure (Goal 9), and sustainability in cities and communities (Goal 11).

Red, yellow, and green colour coded map of India with bars indicating which states are performing well and which are not in each sustainable development goal
A screenshot from the NITI Aayog SDG Index showing how states are measured. The ranking above are for Goal 13 (Climate Action): Source: NITI Aayog

However, the NITI SDG index does not use the same (or all) indicators mentioned by the United Nations. In its Global Indicator Framework, the UN recommends the "number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates in the previous 12 months" as a way to measure Goal 16. To measure Goal 13 (Climate Action), the UN recommends the total greenhouse gas emissions. The homegrown NITI index doesn't use either of these. Hence, the NITI index can potentially be skewed and must be used in conjunction with non-governmental data sources to measure India's progress.

One such source is the Sustainable Development Report. Co-produced by Bertelsmann Stiftung and the UN Sustainable Developments Solutions Network (SDSN), it is a project that tracks the global progress of the SDGs. In its 2020 issue, it ranked India at 117 out of 166 in terms of SDG progress. In its assessment, it found that only 4 SDGs (1, 6, 8, 13) showed trends of improvement, with hunger, equality, and sustainable infrastructure having the lowest performances.

There have been various policy decisions that have helped India progress in its SDGs. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has helped create over 2 billion person-days in the 2016-17 fiscal year. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana has helped provide over 22 million families with LPG connections (reduced smoke and particulate emissions compared to coal and fuelwood). The Integrated National Fisheries Action Plan helps uplift fishing communities while also ensuring the ecological stability of India's marine ecosystems. These are just some of the many pieces of legislation that work towards the SDGs.

However, like with many aspects of the law, India has often struggled with implementing its policies. Establishing the long-term credibility of these programs requires India to develop a robust system of checks and balances. After all, achieving the SDGs includes both progress in paper and reality.

people sitting on the road and protesting for climate action
A major Fridays-For-Future protest being held demanding climate action

It’s not just for the politicians

Most of this article has examined the globe, India, and its states and their progress. The SDGs, though, are not exclusively for governments and policymakers. Even you, the individual, can contribute and get involved with these ideals. You can join the UN itself as a volunteer and help out. If you are a school or college student, you can begin with the SDSN Youth Network as well. Of course, you don't have to work with the UN to achieve these goals.

Working with non-profits is one of the best ways to get involved. The Akanksha Foundation helps low-income children gain access to quality education and schooling (Goal 4). The Centre for Environmental Research and Education frequently hosts events that help educate citizens on climate policy, conservation, waste management, and other sustainability-driven missions (Goals 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, and 15). The Goonj Foundation helps with community development with a focus on providing adequate clothing to all who need it (Goals 1 and 10).

With that, you are now ready to take on the SDGs in your community. Every little bit counts.


Covid-19 and the Sustainable Development Goals | Executive Summary. (2020, July). Retrieved from Sustainable Development Report 2020:

NITI Aayog. (2017). Voluntary National Review Report on the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goals. NITI Aayog.

NITI Aayog. (2018). SDG India Index. Retrieved from NITI Aayog:

NITI Aayog. (n.d.). State Scores. Retrieved from SDG India Index:

Prasad, U., & Singh, S. (2020, January 28). SDG Index 2019: Where does India stand? Retrieved from The Hindu Business Line:

TED. (2015, November 3). How We Can Make the World a Better Place by 2030 | Michael Green | TED Talks. Retrieved from YouTube:

United Nations. (n.d.). Global indicator framework for the Sustainable Development Goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. United Nations.

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