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International mechanisms such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlight the failure to provide public goods, but they cannot be achieved unless the targets are starkly drawn.

Anyone who has been a member of a collective body knows how difficult it is to hammer out an agreed document of any kind, so it is a wonder that the United Nations, with its large and unwieldy membership, managed to agree to a set of common goals for all its members not just once, in 2000, but again, in 2015.

The 2015 SDGs, also called Agenda 2030 for the year by which they are to be achieved, are the sequel to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which ran from 2000 to 2015. There are 17 goals translating into 169 targets and 304 indicators.

Some of the 17 goals carry forward the goals of the earlier MDGs, which had a focus on social and economic inclusion. The additional goals amplify further the single goal among the eight MDGs that addressed the environment.

The SDGs have been rightly criticized for being too many in number and not prioritizing sufficiently. The more serious problem as I see it is they are far too vague in order to mandate results on the ground. As an example, let us look at goal 6. It says, “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all." Have the constituent targets been so framed as to achieve the goal?

Target 3 for this goal is worded thus: “By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and increasing recycling and safe reuse by [x] per cent globally." As stated, the only target requiring elimination is dumping. Dumping of what? The clause preceding it only requires that pollution be reduced. The clause following only asks for minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials. If hazardous materials and pollution released into water bodies only need to be reduced, what is left to dump that has to be eliminated?

The second half of target 3 asks that the proportion of untreated wastewater be halved, which presumably means the raw untreated sewage released into the Yamuna, Ganga, Dal Lake and other such water bodies merely needs to be cut in half and not be brought down to zero. How then is this consistent with target 1 of goal 6, which calls for universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water by 2030, when water from these (only half-reduced) polluted bodies is directly ingested by people?

If the idea is that water from these sources would be treated and reached to people, why could we not instead have had target 3 simply and comprehensively stated as complete elimination of untreated sewage and toxic emissions and pollutants into natural water bodies? It may not be actually achieved, but at least there would be a statement upfront about zero tolerance for any number larger than zero.

Some years ago on a boat trip down the Ganga in Varanasi, the boatman periodically reached over the boat to carry cupfuls of water into his mouth. When I asked if the water was safe to drink, he made a simple statement of faith in the intrinsic purity of the river. This faith is repeatedly and consistently violated by municipalities and industries all along the Ganga-Yamuna basin, which pour untreated sewage and harmful chemical pollutants into the rivers with impunity. One example is Kanpur, whose tanneries pour untreated waste into the Ganga.

Sewage treatment is a local function normally financed by property taxation. A study by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, commissioned by the 13th Finance Commission, found property tax compliance among the 36 largest cities in India averaging out at 40%. Kanpur, on the banks of the Ganga, was better than the national average at 75%.

But then again, the municipal tax demand raised, the denominator for these compliance percentages, suggested poor coverage and assessment in Kanpur (a trading hub of Uttar Pradesh, with a large resident population of wealthy individuals and taxable properties). Agra affords another example, where the tax demand is pitiably low (and fully complied with). No proper quantification can be done of the property tax potential, and of compliance with that potential, unless the universe of assessable properties is known, and the basis of assessment itself improved.

It is this juxtaposition, of an untapped tax base and failure to provide public goods, that internationally imposed imperatives through mechanisms such as MDGs and SDGs are meant to highlight. But they cannot be achieved unless the targets are starkly drawn.

Maybe the reason why zero-tolerance goals are not stated is because the SDGs, like the MDGs, need to be declared a success no matter what, to uphold the honour of the United Nations. That too needs to be corrected. These most laudable international initiatives should not be classified in a binary way in terms of success and failure. Instead, the launch should be accompanied by country-wise declarations of starting values, with percentage success declared at the close of the period, in terms of distance to the goal (ideally zero emissions of untreated sewage for target 3, goal 6).

That gets us to the data issue. Who checks what countries declare in terms of starting or ending values? The MDGs had a target for sustainable access to an improved water source, in terms of per cent households. The official 2015 Indian report places per cent achievement against that target at 95.3 urban, and 88.5 rural in 2012, and expects nearly full coverage by December 2015. These figures call for suspension of disbelief.

In the draft SDG document issued by the United Nations Statistical Commission, each measurable indicator is rated A, B or C according to the feasibility of collecting data on it as assessed by member nations. Target 3 of goal 6 carries two measurable indicators, neither of which has an A rating. Per cent of waste water safely treated is rated B, and per cent of water bodies with risk-free water quality is rated C.

Why should these be rated so low in terms of measurability? These are not dependent on households and, therefore, far more easily collected on a routine basis. Take, for example, target 4 of goal 5 (gender equality), which asks for average weekly hours spent on domestic work by age, sex and location. This indicator is also rated C, but as an intrusive indicator, it is surely not on par with assessing the quality of water in public water bodies.

In sum, I would agree with those who say that the goals and targets in the SDGs are too many, but I would reduce them to those which are objectively measurable, either by the countries themselves or by visiting teams. And emissions and water quality are surely among these, notwithstanding recent revelations of fudging possibilities by the Volkswagen scam. The target survives any measurement hiccups as the ideal aspired to.

In a recent article, a quartet of eminent economists argues that prioritization should be on the basis of benefits and costs of the constituent targets. Access to drinking water free of sewage and toxic contaminants does not depend on benefit-cost quantification for inclusion. It is an imperative public good in countries where poor people have no option but to reach into the nearest water body for their drinking water needs.

What has happened in India is that in this, as in other spheres, those with wherewithal find private solutions to public failure. We have a vast growth industry in the form of reverse osmosis and other water purifying gadgets, through which people buy themselves protection from contaminated water. In the limiting case, when all contaminants released into public water bodies are reduced to zero, these industries will have to close down in their present form, and be re-tooled to produce something else. This is just the same as freedom from war which, in the limiting case, will close down all armaments factories. The offsetting benefits of peace should not need quantification.

The benefits of public goods such as treatment of waste may not be quantifiable, but public goods can all be calibrated to their spatial reach which, in turn, defines the appropriate source of funding. There is the ongoing debate over funding for reduction of global gas emissions, an important issue running parallel to the SDGs within the United Nations. That is too large an issue to be entered into here. Within the SDGs, the benefits of environmental correction will largely, although by no means exclusively, accrue within countries. So, the SDG funding issue reduces to one of which level of government within these countries should bear the financial burden.

For pollution of water bodies, the benefits are local, and although they carry downstream externalities along the flow of a river, these cancel received externalities from local governments upstream. Forests are a different matter, which I will address in a future column.

Indira Rajaraman is an economist.

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