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Sustainable Development Goals: What they mean for India’s children

Ramya Subrahmanian*

The SDGs offer the opportunity for a new conversation that places children at the heart of the vision for India’s future. The world needs India’s contribution not just as a quantitative input to achieving global targets, but because with our 440 million children, we have the opportunity to show the world how a truly sustainable future can be achieved with the right priorities and investments.

Over the past weekend, world leaders endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN General Assembly in New York. The goals, designed to build on and replace the 2000 – 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), represent the unified vision of nations on the development agenda for the next 15 years. They represent not just the agreement on the task unfinished as yet, but also the challenges ahead that need concerted prioritisation and investment.

Are international goals strong enough instruments to realise real change in today’s globalised world? Between 2000 and 2015, some of the MDGs such as halving poverty were realised, but there are many where progress has been disappointing. Plus, the MDGs focused on achieving specific quantifiable targets, without necessarily focusing on the progress of the most deprived and excluded or specifying the conditions to be put in place to yield lasting results – such as investments in health and education systems. To that extent, the MDGs failed to articulate or address the drivers of some of these challenges that are rooted in political economy, governance and social structures.

The SDGs, on the other hand, take as their starting point some of the exclusions in the MDG approach by acknowledging issues such as multidimensional aspects of poverty, decent work for young people, social protection and labour rights for all. They call for inclusive and sustainable cities, infrastructure and industrialization. They underscore the need for strengthening effective, accountable, participatory and inclusive governance; for free expression, information, and association; for fair justice systems; and for peaceful societies and personal security for all. These assertions provide hope that the SDGs can offera robust framework for national dialogue on shared vision and commitments.

Children and the SDGs

The SDGs place focus on children in several important ways. Not only is the entire agenda important for children, given the impact all the goalswill collectively have on today’s children and tomorrow’s adults, but there are specific commitments for children. These include ending preventable deaths, ending hunger and ensuring children’s access to the nutrition that will help them thrive; promoting learning and educational outcomes for all children and ensuring children live without fear of violence, through efforts to end all forms of violence and promote peaceful and just societies.

India’s MDG Scorecard 2000-2015


  • Reducing poverty by half (Goal 1) (by official estimates)
  • Gender parity in primary school enrolment (Goal 3)
  • Increased forest cover and has halved the proportion of population without access to clean drinking water (Goal 7).

Close to/likely to achieve:

  • Reducing hunger by half (Goal 1);
  • Reducing maternal mortality by three quarters (Goal 5);
  • Control of the spread of deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis (Goal 6)

Lagging behind:

  • Achieving universal primary school enrolment and completion and achieving universal youth literacy by 2015 (Goal 2);
  • Empowering women through wage employment and political participation (Goal 3);
  • Reducing child and infant mortality (Goal 4);
  • Improving access to adequate sanitation to eliminate open defecation (Goal 7).

Source: India and the MDGs Towards a sustainable future for all (United Nations in India, February 2015

For India’s children, the challenges are several. Despite some important progress in outcomes for children (see box), there is still a long way to go. Challenges remain in several areas such as immunization coverage, birth registration and adolescent health, especially for girls, and universal completion of secondary schooling with appropriate learning outcomes. Service coverage and access for maternal health still requires last mile effort.

Central to any progress for children are approaches and policies that see the ‘whole child’ not just a variety of ‘sectors’ with piecemeal strategies that target some aspects of children’s lives, or target specific groups of children. For example, recent analysis[1] shows that apart from the top 10 per cent (in income terms) of households in diversely situated villages, the rest of the population had similar deprivations. Poor public services affects the majority of children in this country and undermines economic aspirations. Universalising quality affordable and accessible servicesfor health, nutrition, pre-schooling and educationhas to be at the heart of India’s development strategy. This would help also bridge social divides and contribute to a more inclusive society, where everyone hasaccess to quality services irrespective of social background and status.

Second, violence is a major impediment to children’s development. Advances in neuroscience now show how violence, neglect and lack of care can damage children’s cognitive and affective development. Further, children exposed to violence are at significant risk for future disadvantage across a range of outcomes – health, education, cognitive development and ability, social problems, amongst others. Unfortunately, not only are certain forms of violence considered acceptable- such as corporal punishment, including beating and harsh punishment – large numbers of children are put in situations of harm where they experience extreme violence. This is manifested inearly marriage, child labour, and most horribly in trafficking for commercial and sexual exploitation. The absence of preventive measures such as direct support to families and care-givers in the form of essential information, services and resources places large numbers of children at tremendous risk.

The costs of these risks are not well-understood by policy makers. Global evidence shows that it is costlier for nations, societies and individuals to repair the effects of damage caused by violence in childhood than it is to invest in its prevention. Failure to acknowledge and act on such overwhelming evidence will undermine India’s efforts to be the torch-bearer it seeks to represent on the global stage.

To break intergenerational cycles of violence and deprivation, there is a central need to talk about the roles of men and women, boys and girls in the process of giving and receiving the kinds of care that can enable children to develop physically, mentally, economically and socially. Recent debates in India that position economic growth and social development as two parallel or opposing engines of development fail to recognise how deeply interlinked they are. Two new reports from the Asian Development Bank and the global consulting giant McKinsey show how India’s economic aspirations are undermined by the low labour force participation of women, which in turn is significantly impacted by the lack of support women have for their culturally determined responsibilities for home and children.[2] Shared responsibilities for care-giving amongst men and women and improved resources and services to ensure all human basic rights are met, should therefore be a key priority for India’s sustainable development journey.

*Ramya Subrahmanian is Executive Director, Know Violence in Childhood.


1. Madhura Swaminathan and Venkatesh Athreya “Economic Status and Child Deprivation: Findings from Village Surveys” in India’s Children: Essays in Social Policy (OUP, 2015)

2. Here’s How Indian Men Doing More Housework Could Boost the Economy



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