How can Assam progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals

Editorial by Sagarmoy Phukan and Pratyush Paras Sarma

On 3rd June 2021, NITI Aayog published the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for India. As usual Assam’s performance has been still under the performer category since the last 2 years and consistently maintaining the 3rd position from the bottom. It is interesting to know that Assam was the first state in India to adopt Sustainable Development Goals in 2016.

Goal wise Top States in 2020-2021 (Source: The Hindu)
Goalwise status for India 2019 vs 2020 (Source: NITI Aayog, 2021)

Earlier this year we published a paper Understanding Assam’s Sustainability Issues looking into the history of sustainability of Assam and the present conditions based upon the National Indicator Framework of the SDG India Index 2018-19 and 2019-20. While looking into the previous SDG reports, we found Assam’s performance in the SDGs has been relatively poor compared to other states like Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, etc. as indicated by the SDG India Index Baseline Report prepared by NITI Aayog in 2018. The index pointed out that Assam stands almost at the bottom of the list with a score of 49 against a national average of 57, just above Bihar (48) and Uttar Pradesh (42) (N.I.T.I, Aayog, 2018). While most of the states have a score of above 50 including the other northeastern states, it has become a matter of concern that despite being the first state to adopt the SDG in 2016, Assam has not been able to reach the score of 50.

SDG Index Score of States 2019-2020 vs 2020-2021 (Source: The Print)

In 2019, SDG India index reported that the national average has gone up to 60 from 57 in 2018, and Assam along with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh has also reached the Performers category with a score of 55, 50 and 55 respectively. Assam has improved its performance in Goal 6 and 7 and moved to the front runner category from the aspirant category (Aayog, N.I.T.I, 2019).  But the state’s performance has dropped to the front runner category from achievers category in Goal 15 and the state is still in the aspirant category in Goal 13 along with Goals 3, 5, 9 and 11 (Aayog, N.I.T.I, 2019).  Therefore even though Assam has improved its performance from the previous year’s report but to achieve a highly ambitious target by 2030 the government need to buckle up and should consider restructuring of some of the administrative policies so that it could achieve the desired level of success within the stipulated time and become a good model for the other states to follow it.

States & UTs SDG Performance in 2020 (Niti Aayog, 2021)

In 2020, SDG India index reported that country’s national average went upto 66 while Assam’s score was still hovering between 55-60, with just an improvement of 2 score points from 2019. While it can be noticed that the country’s average score managed to jump six places from 2019 till 2020, on the other hand Assam could only manage 2 score points (55-57) from 2019 to 2020. However while comparing the previous SDG report, Assam’s performance has improved from aspirant category to performer category in Goal 3, 11 and 13 but the state’s performance in Goal 5 and 9 has shown no improvement and remained at the aspirant category. Moreover this year Assam’s overall improvement was not satisfactory, infact Assam has been ranked  3rd from below along with Bihar and Jharkhand. With 11 out of 17 goals still remaining in the aspirant and performer category, it will be a daunting task for the state to achieve these goals by 2030. 

The SDG India Index Report is an important step towards tracking the performances of different states in terms of implementing the SDGs. Assam being the first state has already prepared a detailed strategy for implementing these goals. Some of the strategies included forming of a nodal department to which will function as the main umbrella department looking after the entire implementing process of the SDGs, under this department a centre has been created to function as a knowledge hub and a cell has also been created for coordination function. Therefore, the government of Assam should try to find out the loopholes in the strategies. Besides this the state consists of different types of tribal people, therefore if the government can integrate some of the strategies used by these people and devise a unique strategy by combining features of both traditional and modern aspects then it might be able to foster holistic development of the economy sustainably and achieve the targets of SDGs within the stipulated period.

Mizoram has been the fastest mover in SDG Index score from 2019 to 2020. It received +12 score. (Source: Niti Aayog, 2021)

What we can do?

The tribes of Assam such as Bodos, Tiwas, Misings, etc. have various sacred and religious beliefs which led to the preservation and conservation of the environment among the tribal communities (Barman & Phukan,2016). One of the most common features among the tribes is that here the entire community comes together as a whole and holds themselves responsible for the conservation and sustainable use of the environment (Barman & Phukan,2016). The Tiwas, for instance, adopted community fishing because of the presence of a large number of water sources which has, in turn, provided an opportunity to organise fairs and festivals like the Jun Beel Mela in the Kamrup district (Barman & Phukan,2016). One of the most prominent features of this mela is that buying and selling of things happen through the barter system (Barman & Phukan,2016). Tribes produce various traditional cakes, rice powder etc. by bartering edible items such as ginger, turmeric, chillies, indigo etc. This mela provides an eminent example of conserving and maintaining an ecosystem (Barman & Phukan, 2016).

This type of fair generally indicates a close link between community life and the environment and also shows how the environment affects community life and vice versa (Barman & Phukan,2016). Moreover, the Assam government can take references from other neighbouring states like Sikkim, Nagaland etc on how they are integrating a traditional approach of sustainable conservation along with the modern one. For instance, in Sikkim, there exists a traditional system of governance, almost 200 years old known as ‘Dzumsa’, found especially in North Sikkim (Chakrabarti, 2011).  It looks after all the development activities, law and order, as well as regulates the natural resource management in the region (Chakrabarti, 2011). Such a type of governance will help to foster sustainable development in an effective manner (Chakrabarti, 2011).  Moreover, people of  Lachung valley in Sikkim practice a high degree of pastoralism, known as the ‘gothwala’ system (Chakrabarti, 2011).  It is a process systematically organised by the Dzumsa where the cyclical movement of the herdsmen along with their herds allows for the grass to regenerate as well as maintaining sufficient fodder for the animals (Chakrabarti, 2011).  Also, the dung of animals helps the soil to replenish its fertility (Chakrabarti, 2011).  Therefore this system runs in conformity with the definition of sustainable development and generates livelihood without destroying nature (Chakrabarti, 2011).

Another example of increasing community participation through institutional arrangement based on the existing value system is Nagaland’s Village Development Boards (VDBs), created by the Nagaland Government; it aims to augment the traditional system of agriculture rather than attempt to radically change it (Ramakrishnan,2007). Another simplistic view of integrated management would be to identify ecological keystone species (Ramakrishnan,2007). These are socially/culturally-valued species and are important in the agroforestry systems across the Himalayan region. Such as the Alnus nepalensis and many bamboo species are important for the Jhum system which conserves NPK in the soil (Ramakrishnan,2007). Therefore, if the government can incorporate some of these features or explore some more indigenous processes specifically in the hilly areas of Assam, it will provide incentives to achieve the goals.

Therefore, there is a need to understand that not all traditional ecological knowledge and practices go against the ethics and ethos of conservation. Government initiatives should aim to establish a complementary relationship between conservation and livelihood issues. Enhancement of the positive dimensions of these practices and knowledge base, buttressed with conventional science-based inputs is likely to be a more effective way of resolving conflicts by increasing community participation, improving the socio-economic development of the people as well as contributing towards effective conservation of nature (Ramakrishnan, 2007). Moreover, forestry and diverse agricultural and agroforestry practices are among the most promising means of carbon management because of their potential for carbon sequestration, in turn supporting mitigation (Ramakrishnan,2007). There is also a need to strengthen climate data collection and increase climate change research, which is presently insufficient. 

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