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Sustainable Development: An Oxymoron in India?

In order to adequately understand whether sustainable development is an oxymoron for any country, one must break down and understand the constituent parts of this loaded question. An oxymoron can be described as a self-contradictory concept or an idea that cannot be conceived logically as possible. ‘Sustainability’ and ‘development’ are two distinct concepts, and the combination of the two terms (‘sustainable development’) is a practice; hence, to answer the above question we must understand whether this practice and anything it aims to accomplish is self-contradictory. First, I will begin by discussing the ideas of sustainability and development in isolation; second, I will apply this discussion to the context of India and the progress it has made thus far; lastly, I will attempt to frame the fundamental question and answer it using the information from the first two sections. As Alan Garfinkel argues in ‘Forms of Explanation’ (1981), ferreting out the correct question is more important than answering wrong ones.

Sustainability & Development in isolation

Sustainability in ecology, involves the ability of a system to endure (or sustain) its routine operations; however, on a more generic level, sustainability may mean the ability of any system or an entity to endure whilst not degrading or disadvantaging the principal components that are required for its functioning. These include environmental, social and economic aspects of a system, which form the core philosophy of UN’s sustainable development agenda. Development means the holistic progress of human beings towards an ideal state of being. The definition of the ideal state can be slightly subjective, but there is global agreement on the meaning of this term and its components, as defined in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The three main pillars of these development goals, viz. social, environmental and economic, are drawn from the broader definition of sustainability given above.

In the Context of India

 Sustainability has been a topic of common interest in India, for the private sector as well as the public sector. However, in these examples it only refers to environmental sustainability, as opposed to social or economic sustainability as stated in the broader definition above. India’s progress in terms of sustainability can be measured using a number of national and global indices; for instance, the holistic Sustainable Society Index measures countries in terms of human, economic and environmental well-being. India’s highest rank amongst the three pillars is no. 72, ranked in the environmental arena. It logically follows that India exhibits certain level of effort and has achieved some level of sustainability (as reported in this index); at any rate, there remains considerable room for improvement in the future. Similarly, India has acknowledged development as being critical for advancing towards the future and has made tremendous progress since 2000 as reflected in the results from the Millennium Development Goals. However, the progress has been mixed and not necessarily inclusive, i.e. it has left socially and economically marginalized sections of the society behind.

In any case, India’s aspiration to achieve higher levels of sustainability is exemplified by the Government of India’s ‘12th Five Year Plan’ and other efforts taken by the government. Likewise, India’s aspiration to make development inclusive was highly manifested in its continued commitment to working with United Nations on the Post 2015 Development Agenda and in the most recent national elections of 2014. Prime Minster Narendra Modi furthered the idea of ‘inclusive growth’ during the elections. Note that although his philosophy for ‘growth’ and ‘development’ is complex, and such political agendas can be highly contested by critics, the purpose of making ‘inclusiveness’ central to his campaign demonstrates its significance to India as a developing nation.

The above evidence clearly highlights India’s commitment to ensure sustainability as well as development, along with measured progress in both areas.

The Real Question: Sustainable Development

Collating our understanding from the isolated discussions on sustainability and development, we can now state the fundamental question as follows: Can we achieve social, environmental and economic sustainability while also ensuring inclusive development for the citizens of India? The evidence gathered so far illustrates that sustainable development comprises of, but is not limited to, setting goals such as the SDGs, measuring progress as in the case of MDGs, and developing indices such as the Sustainable Society Index. Essentially, it is a broad practice that acknowledges holistic progress of people and nations, i.e. covering all three aspects mentioned in the fundamental question above. In terms of India, we have presented evidence showing the tremendous progress made so far, but also the massive ground that remains to be covered in the years to come. Hence, my central argument is that sustainable development is evolving to be an ideology as well as a practice, with an extensive body of data and research, powerful actors at global and local levels, as well as capital directed toward the purpose of common progress. The natural outcome resulting from this ideology would be to consider sustainable development as a nation’s ultimate goal – an ideal state of affairs. But this goal is not utopian; in fact we have made considerable progress towards it in the past couple of decades measured by the MDGs. Hence, it follows that sustainable development is not a contradiction, but at best, a “challenge” for our current generation. On this account, one might term it as a ‘superficial oxymoron’; superficial only because any in-depth analysis of the subject will reveal that the premises on which sustainable development rests and its resultant conclusion is a possibility, and not a contradiction (i.e. not a true oxymoron). The reasonable manner of conducting a country analysis would be to study the ‘size of the challenge’ posed by the principles of sustainable development for that country’s generation. In light of India’s situation, sustainable development is a major challenge from all three pillars of society, environment and economics. The evidence for this statement lies in the “mixed progress” India has witnessed during the era of MDGs between 2000 and 2015.

In conclusion, sustainable development is not an oxymoron or a contradiction. At best, it is an ideology and the pursuit of that ideology poses a challenge to any nation. Hence, the measure of any progress must lie in studying the size and nature of such challenge for any particular country. India, despite its infamous growth story, faces sustainable development as a long-term challenge on several fronts.

Sahil Patni

Business Development Consultant

Peace & Collaborative Development Network

  • Published by
  • October 1, 2015 10:29 am

1 Comment

Profile Photo by Eyob Asfaw

Indeed I found this piece so interesting and inspiring. I see that we are on entry to the  phase of “Sustainable development”, since it is an ideology,  yet not contested intellectually, prior to its global wide, outright  implementation


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