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Development and assessment of national and regional sustainability: a multi-pronged approach in the Indian context

Student Name: Ms Swati Kwatra
Guide: Prof. Prateek Sharma
Year of completion: 2019


Measurement of sustainability is a difficult but important task to strike the balance between social, economic and environmental dimensions in a system, and hence, to ensure inter- and intra-generational equity. Sustainable Development Indices (SDIs) have been used as primary tools to measure sustainability across the world. The SDIs not only measure the progress of a dynamic system but also summarize its complexities into simple and meaningful information, which is more focused and condensed in nature. Further, SDIs help to identify issues which require urgent attention and hence, enable the policy makers to take necessary interventions for control. In literature, there are limited studies across the world, which demonstrate the use of SDIs in carrying out sustainability assessments at national and regional levels. There are even fewer studies, which have focused on bottom-up approaches to develop a regional level SDI taking into account the local issues and priorities through stakeholder involvement. This study aims to fill this research gap in India by developing a national and regional level SDI using top-down and bottom-up approaches, respectively.

India is following a rapid economic growth trajectory, which is helping in improving the social well-being more in urban regions, however, exerting enormous pressure on the environmental resources. In this context, measuring sustainability in different parts of the country becomes utmost important. For this purpose, a national level SDI has been developed in this study, which compares the states/Union Territories (UTs) of India on a scale of sustainability, and identifies the front runners and laggards. The SDI also identifies the themes on which a certain state/UT is doing well and the ones which need attention.

India being a very big and diverse country, its regions and residents are significantly different from each other. Hence, only a national level SDI would not be sufficient to gauge the progress adequately. Regions in India have specific issues, and diverse stakeholders which have not been taken into account in a generalized national level SDI. In order to address this issue, a regional level SDI has been formulated in this study, which aims to compare the sustainability of a specific region over a period of time. Goa has been selected as the region to assess its sustainability over a period of 14 years i.e. from 2001-2014.

Both national and regional level SDIs take into consideration the three legs of sustainable development – social, economic and environment, as the key themes for the SDIs. The SDIs are based on an aggregated theme based framework. An aggregated index eventually provides a single value, which is easy to understand by the policymakers and the general public. On disaggregation, the SDI can provide separate values for each theme which contribute towards overall sustainable development. The SDI based on theme-base aggregated framework helps in providing basis to the policy makers for making independent recommendations at sectoral level. Considering the advantages of both aggregated and theme based framework, a combination of both has been used in this study to develop composite SDIs at national as well as regional level. Different approaches have been used to develop these two SDIs. For national level SDI, a top-down approach has been used where the themes and indicators have been identified based on their relevance at macro-level in the country, with variations across states/UTs. On the other hand, regional level SDI has been developed using a bottom-up approach in which local stakeholders including Government, NGOs/academia, industry as well Panchayats have been involved in development of the SDI. An exhaustive list of themes, sub-themes and indicators has been developed based on literature review. The list was shared with national as well as local experts to identify most important themes/sub-themes and indicators for the region. In case of national level index, all the themes considered are assigned with equal relative weights. However, in case of regional level index, identified themes and sub-themes have been assigned relative weights by different stakeholder groups using AHP technique. AHP is a participatory method used in this study for assigning relative weights to the contributing themes and sub-themes through the multi-criteria decision making technique.

The composite SDI values have been computed at the national level for the year 2010 using indicator datasets for different states/UTs. The indicators were first normalized and then aggregated in the sub-themes and themes with equal weights to compute SDI values. The national SDI when applied at different states/UTs of India shows that the States/UTs of Chandigarh, Sikkim, A&N islands, Delhi and Goa, are relatively more sustainable than the rest. The SDI identifies that there are some states/UTs which are lagging in either of the leg, and performing relatively better on the others. North–eastern states are lagging in socio-economic development, while Delhi shows a strained environmental leg. Poor performance on any one theme has adversely affected the overall SDI score. Thus, this study emphasizes that in order to improve the overall SDI; improvements are required in all three contributing dimensions. The findings of the study also suggest that smaller states/UTs have scored higher on the SDI values and indicate better governance in smaller administrative region in comparison to the bigger ones. Moreover, the study shows that Indian states are following the kuznet curve, where environmental performance improves gradually after a certain level of economic growth.

In case of regional level SDI, indicator values were normalized by comparing them with relevant benchmarks in India and then using relative weights collected through AHP process, SDI index values have been computed for 14 years (2001-2014) .The findings of the AHP shows that all the stakeholder groups gave almost equal importance to the three themes of sustainability, with slightly higher weight to environment (38%), and little lower priorities to social (32%) and economic (30%) themes. The present study statistically also proves that Goa is performing better on socio-economic fronts as compare to the environment theme of sustainability. Applying these weights to the indicators, regional level SDI values have been computed for Goa. The results show that SDI (weighted) hasslowly gone up by 17% during 2001 to 2014. Goa is doing well on certain sub-themes like access to basic amenities, reducing income poverty, improving air quality, and economic growth. On the other hand, sub-themes like education,livelihoods, waste, ocean, sea and coastal ecology and environmental budgeting needs more attention to improve the overall sustainability. Sensitivity and uncertainty analysis were carried out to ascertain the robustness of SDI. Thereafter, possibilities for future projections of the regional SDI werealso explored. Aregression based model has been developed to predict SDI values based on growth in different economic sectors. These economic sectors on one hand positively impact the region through socio-economic growth, but on the other hand also leave negative environmental footprints. Alternative future scenarios have been tested using the regression model, which suggests that in a business as usual (BAU) scenario, SDI scores in Goa will go down in medium term.

The study shows that SDIs at national and regional level could prove useful for the decisions makers and can provide insights into the areas of concern which need special attention. Results could eventually help in balancing the three themes of sustainable development.

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