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Sustainable Development in a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed an unprecedented crisis, causing further disruption to progress in achieving Sustainable Development Goals, with the world’s poorest and most vulnerable affected the most.

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By Aditya Ranjan

In the 1980s, increasing concern about the effects of economic development on health, natural resources and the environment led the United Nations to publish the Brundtland Report, in 1987, which is also known as “Our Common Future”. The report defined Sustainable Development as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It alerted the world to the urgency of making progress toward economic development that could be sustained without depleting natural resources or harming the environment.

Sustainable development is primarily concerned with redistributing resources towards poorer nations whilst encouraging their economic growth. It envisages that equity, growth and environmental maintenance are simultaneously possible and that each country is capable of achieving its full economic potential whilst at the same time enhancing its resource base. Achieving this would require technological and social change.

Three fundamental components to sustainable development are environmental protection, economic growth and social equity. The environment should be conserved and our resource base enhanced, by gradually changing the ways in which we develop and use technologies. Sustainable Development is not just about the environment, but about the economy and our society as well. 

Sustainable Development is development based on patterns of production and consumption that can be pursued into the future without degrading the human or natural environment. It involves the equitable sharing of the benefits of economic activity across all sections of society, to enhance the well-being of humans, protect health and alleviate poverty. If sustainable development is to be successful, the attitudes of individuals as well as governments with regard to our current lifestyles and the impact they have on the environment will need to change.

In June 1992, a comprehensive plan of action to build a global partnership for sustainable development to improve human lives and protect the environment, called Agenda 21, was adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by more than 178 countries adopted. To ensure effective follow-up of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCED) and to monitor and report on implementation of the agreements at the local, national, regional and international levels, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created in December 1992.  Member Nations agreed that a five-year review of Earth Summit progress would be made in 1997 by the United Nations General Assembly meeting in special session.

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002, the full implementation of Agenda 21, the programme for further implementation of Agenda 21 and the commitments to the Rio principles, were strongly reaffirmed. The Millennium Summit in September 2000 at UN Headquarters in New York, the Millennium Declaration was unanimously adopted by Member States. The Millennium Summit led to the elaboration of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to reduce extreme poverty by 2015.

 In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on 20-22 June 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development—or Rio+20—-took place. It resulted in a focused political outcome document which contains clear and practical measures for implementing sustainable development. The objective was to produce a set of universal goals that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world.

In 2015, United Nations Member States adopted The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. The SDGs replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which started a global effort in 2000 to tackle the indignity of poverty. The SDG is the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are integrated as they recognize that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability. These are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.

Member states recognized that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

The Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are as follows:-

  • End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  • End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  • Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  • Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  • Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  • Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  • Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  • Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  • Reduce inequality within and among countries
  • Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  • Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts*
  • Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  • Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  • Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  • Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Nations Development Programme (UNDP) supports countries in achieving the SDGs through integrated solutions for the reason that complex challenges of the world today -from stemming the spread of disease to preventing conflict- cannot be tackled in isolation. For this UNDP, focuses on systems, root causes and connections between challenges—not just thematic sectors—to build solutions that respond to people’s daily realities.  

Achieving the SDGs by 2030 requires the partnership of governments, private sector, civil society and citizens alike to make sure we leave a better planet for future generations. However, as per the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020, the 15-year global effort to improve the lives of people everywhere through the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 was already off track by the end of 2019. The world had been making progress—although uneven and insufficient to meet the Goals — in areas such as improving maternal and child health, expanding access to electricity and increasing women’s representation in government. Yet even these advances were offset elsewhere by growing food insecurity, deterioration of the natural environment, and persistent and pervasive inequalities.

 The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed an unprecedented crisis, causing further disruption to SDG progress, with the world’s poorest and most vulnerable affected the most. The pandemic has quickly become the worst human and economic crisis of our lifetime, spreading to all countries, making the achievement of Goals even more challenging.” It has exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities and injustices.”

Using the latest data and estimates, this annual stocktaking report on progress across the 17 Goals shows that it is the poorest and most vulnerable – including children, older persons, persons with disabilities, migrants and refugees – who are being hit the hardest by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Women are also bearing the heaviest brunt of the pandemic’s effects.

The report also shows that climate change is still occurring much faster than anticipated. The year 2019 was the second warmest on record and the end of the warmest decade of 2010 to 2019. Meanwhile, ocean acidification is accelerating; land degradation continues; massive numbers of species are at risk of extinction; and unsustainable consumption and production patterns remain pervasive. Sustainable development is a harmonious concept between environment and development. It is about reconciling conflict with the environment in which human being exist.

The Supreme Court of India has played the role of a catalyst in safeguarding the environmental concerns by pronouncing various landmark judgements. This has led to the creation of a whole new level of jurisprudence which began with absolute liability. Now it includes concepts such as the polluter pays principle, sustainable development and the precautionary principle.

Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun v. Union of India (A.I.R 1985 S.C 652), was the first case involving the issues relating to environment and ecological balance which brought into sharp focus the conflict between development and conservation. In this case, the indiscriminate mining in the Mussoorie hills and Dehradun belt denuded the Mussoorie hills of trees and forest cover. It accelerated soil erosion resulting in landslides and blockage of underground water which fed many rivers and springs in the river valley. The court appointed an expert committee to advice the Bench on technical issues and on the basis of the report of the committee, the Court ordered the closure of number of lime stone quarries.

In State of Himachal Pradesh v. Ganesh Wood Products, 1995 SCC (6) 363, the Supreme Court observed that “the present generation has no right to imperil the safety and well-being of the next generation or the generations to come thereafter”.  Supreme Court further observed, “Afterall, the present generation has no right to deplete all the existing forests and leave nothing for the next and future generations”. 

In Indian Council of Enviro-Legal Action vs. Union of India, 1996 (5) SCC 281, the Apex Court held: “while economic development should not be allowed to take place at the cost of ecology or by causing widespread environment destruction and violation; at the same time, the necessity to preserve ecology and environment should not hamper economic and other developments”. 

The doctrine of Sustainable Development was implemented by the Supreme Court in the case of Vellore Citizen Welfare Forum vs. Union of India(1996 (5) SCC 647). The Petitioners therein had filed a petition in public interest under Article 32 of the Constitution of India against the pollution caused by discharge of untreated effluent by the tanneries and other industries in the river Palar in the State of Tamil Nadu.

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The Supreme Court pointed out that the traditional concept that development and ecology are opposed to each other is no longer acceptable. Sustainable development is the answer.  The apex court observed, “We have no hesitation in holding that “Sustainable Development’ as a balancing concept between ecology and development has been accepted as a part of the Customary International Law though its salient feature have yet to be finalized by the International Law Jurists. Some of the salient principles of “Sustainable Development”, as culled-out from Brundtland Report and other international documents, are Inter-Generational Equity, Use and Conservation of Nature Resources, Environmental Protection, the Precautionary Principle, Polluter Pays principle, Obligation to assist and cooperate, Eradication of Poverty and Financial Assistance to the developing countries. We are, however, of the views that “The Precautionary Principle” and “The Polluter Pays” principle are essential features of “Sustainable Development”.

The court held that: “Remediation of the damaged environment is part of the process of ‘Sustainable Development’ and as such polluter is liable to pay the cost to the individual sufferers as well as the cost of reversing the damaged ecology.” The Supreme Court in T.N. Godavaraman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India (Judgement dated 12.12.1996), issued detailed directions for the sustainable use of forests and created its own monitoring and implementation system through regional and state level committees, regulating the felling, use and movement of timber across the country in the hope of preserving the nation’s forest. 

The Apex Court explained and implemented the doctrine of Sustainable Development in a number of judgments thereafter. In Narmada Bachao Andolan vs. Union of India (2000) the court observed that “Sustainable Development means what type or extent of development can take place, which can be sustained by nature or ecology with or without mitigation”.

In T.N. Godavaraman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India, the Supreme Court observed, “The environments are not the State property and are national asset. It is the obligation of all to conserve the environments and for its utilization, it is necessary to have regard to the principles of sustainable development and inter-generational equity”. Supreme Court further observed, “Conservation includes preservation, maintenance, sustainable utilization, restoration and enhancement of the natural environment”.

In T.N. Godavaraman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India, Supreme Court observed,“Environmental justice could be achieved only if we drift away from the principle of anthropocentric to ecocentric. Many of our principles like sustainable development, polluter-pays principle, inter-generational equity have their roots in anthropocentric principles. Anthropocentrism is always human interest focussed and non-human has only instrumental value to humans. In other words, humans take precedence and human responsibilities to non- human based benefits to humans. Ecocentrism is nature centred where humans are part of nature and non-human has intrinsic value. In other words, human interest do not take automatic precedence and humans have obligations to non-humans independently of human interest. Ecocentrism is therefore life- centred, nature-centred where nature include both human and non- humans. National Wildlife Action Plan 2002-2012 and centrally sponsored scheme (Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats) is centred on the principle of ecocentrism.

The Supreme Court further observed, “The principle of sustainable development and inter-generational equity too pre-supposes the higher needs of humans and lays down that exploitation of natural resources must be equitably distributed between the present and future generations. Environmental ethics behind those principles were human need and exploitation, but such principles have no role to play when we are called upon to decide the fate of an endangered species or the need to protect the same irrespective of its instrumental value”.

Hence, importance has been given both to development and environment and the quest is to maintain a fine balance between environment and economic development. The Supreme Court of India emphasized on the need to set up specialized Environment courts for the effective and expeditious disposal of cases involving environmental issues, since the right to healthy environment has been construed as a part of right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

The National Green Tribunal was set up under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 (NGT Act). The objective of the NGT Act is to provide effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to the protection of the environment. There is a principal bench of the Tribunal in New Delhi and four regional benches in Bhopal, Kolkata, Pune and Chennai. These are ‘co-equal benches’.

NGT has been empowered to hear all the civil matters related to environment. The NGT is not bound by the procedures of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 but is bound by the principles of natural justice.  In furtherance of its duties, the NGT has furthered the crusade of environment protection on basis the doctrine of Sustainable Development.

Mahatma Gandhi who led India to her freedom, was also an environmentalist. And such was his passion, vision and understanding of the environment – back in the days when nationalism overruled any global thinking -that his writings and thoughts are punch lines for almost all present-day environmental organizations and campaigns.

Being fully aware about the consequence of unwarranted industrialization on the Environment of India, he wrote “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like a locusts.” He believed that “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed” He was also one of the first who thought on the lines of sustainable development. In 1909, he  appealed to his countrymen not be trapped by the thought of material gains. The real importance of Gandhi as an environmentalist lies not just in his vision and his understanding of the man-nature relationship, but in the fact that he patterned his personal life on these ideals and set a living example for others to follow. Throughout his life, he continued to give demonstrations on health, hygiene and sanitation.

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Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.  So, the habit of sustainable development should be one of the major concerns of every human being if mother earth has to survive to meet the needs of our coming generation. It is about time we start protecting our earth lest it may be too late tomorrow.

-The author is Advocate–On-Record

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