The ushering of the new millennium saw global leaders pledging towards freeing all men, women and children from abject poverty. This marked a crucial milestone in the history of developmental studies and the vision was translated into a framework of the following eight major goals, commonly known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were sought to be achieved by the end of 2015.

As 2015 drew to a close, more than 1 billion people across the globe were pulled out of poverty, more children went to schools and paved way for innovative partnerships in the developed and the developing world alike (Moon, 2015). The MDGs through its implementation saved the lives of many and improved the overall living conditions of people across the globe. For instance, under 5 mortality rates dropped from 183 deaths per 100,000 live births to 83 for the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, from 129 to 53 for the countries in South Asia, 58 to 18 for East Asia and Pacific and from 54 to 18 for the Latin American and the Caribbean countries between 1990 and 2015. Niger which had the highest under 5 mortality (328) in 1990, reported a all of more than 200 counts to 98 in 2015. Similarly, India reported a fall by 78 counts (from 126 in 1990 to 48 in 2015). On the other hand, in terms of per capita GDP, China reported a 9.2 per cent increase, India a 5.0 per cent increase, United States a 1.6 per cent and Switzerland an increase by 1 per cent between 1990 and 2014 (UNICEF, 2016).

Yet, a vast gap remained between the proposed goals and what was achieved in reality. For instance, a high degree of poverty still existed in concentrated pockets across the world; instances of maternal mortality were not rare; coverage of basic amenities could not be realized; and girls were kept out of school owing to prevalent social taboos. Though the achievements of the MDGs could be mapped, but the universality of coverage of such achievements was far from being realized. India performed well in achieving few of the targets set in the MDGs. For instance, the Poverty Head Count Ratio (PHCR), which was 47.8 per cent in 1990s, was expected to be 23.9 per cent (halved) by 2015. However, by 2011-12, the PHCR was reported to be 21.1 per cent owing to the successful implementation of schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA) and both urban and rural health missions (MoSPI, 2015). Further, enrolment and completion rates of girls at primary level have almost caught up with that of the boys (MHRD, 2016). However, in terms of progress made in the coverage of improved sanitation facilities and decreasing rates of maternal mortality, the country seems to be quite off-the track.

Having crossed the target year of 2015 in achieving the MDGs and in the light of ongoing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it becomes crucial to enable an understanding of the global developmental scenario. This article highlights the basic premises on which the SDGs have been conceptualized and tries to figure out how efficiently these would help bridge the gap left by the MDGs.

The Sustainable Development Goals: A New Milestone in the Development Sector   

With the target year of the MDGs coming to an end, the member states of the United Nations met at the General Assembly in January 2016. Realizing the need to address the critical concerns of climate change, need for innovation, sustainable consumption, lives on land and those below water, the resolutions taken at the United Nations General Assembly in October 2015 towards ‘Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ have been collated under the broader framework of SDGs–also popularly referred to as the Global Goals. The targets are deemed to e achieved by 2030. The SDGs consist of 17 major goals destined to meet 169 targets.


It is envisaged beyond doubt that the SDGs have a wider coverage in comparison to the MDGs. However, John Coonrod (2014) has attempted to look at the two developmental goals through a common lens and his arguments may be summarized as follows:

  • While the MDG aimed at freeing half of the global population from poverty and hunger, the SDGs targeted at achieving the statistical zero in terms of impoverishment, infant mortality and other indictors.


  • The targets of the MDGs were based on the basic premise of rich countries helping out the poor ones by providing financial aids and other forms of support. But since then, there has been a drastic change in the global scenario. Poverty has reduced to a great extent, though intro-country inequality and disparity have greatly increased. Evidently, 1.4 per cent of population in China in 2015 lived below USD 1.90 per day as compared to 66.1 per cent in 1990. However, in contrast, the intra-country Gini-Coefficients, used to map inequality, computed using a range of income or consumption variables are found to have increased from 32.7 in 1990 to 47.8 in 2007 (Milanovic, 2013). It is envisaged that the majority of poor live in middle income countries. To meet the common targets of the SDGs, countries need to set up individual achievable targets, keeping in mind the performance of the different socio-economic indicators.


  • Though the MDGs were successful in addressing some of the contemporary challenges like bringing gender parity at pre-primary levels of education, increase the continuation rate of children in primary education, reducing mortality rates, crucial factors like inclusivity in addressing the global concerns of human rights, peace and harmony, issues of governance, sustainable living in the cities and neighbourhoods, lives on land and below water etc., have often been neglected. These have been attempted to be addressed through the global goals. The gender goals and the anticipatory governance goals set by SDGs seem to be much stronger a component in comparison to the MDGs.


  • Unlike the SDGs, the MDGs perceived that hunger and nourishment and poverty are interlinked domains. Therefore, the issue was targeted to be addressed through Goal 1. Research dedicated to these concerns reveals that poverty is not only linked to hunger and impoverishment but can also bear a multidimensional character. A recent study undertaken by Oxford Poverty and Human Development Indices illustrates that poverty is not only reflected in undernourishment, but also in the years of schooling, attendance to school, access to clean cooking fuels, electricity, toilet facilities and non-possession of specific assets (OPHI, 2010). Therefore, SDGs emphasize on separating poverty (Goal 1) and food and nutritional security (Goal 2) as independent domains that need dedicated attention to reduce if not completely eliminate the variety of human problems concerning availability and accessibility of basic resources on which the living conditions depend.


  • Much of the targets of the MDGs were achieved through the grants received, but the SDGs are laid on the grants received, but the SDGs are laid on the core strategy of sustainability where countries would be mobilized to generate their funds internally to mitigate the developmental challenges faced by them.


  • Though the world has made significant achievements in terms of the social and the developmental indicators, yet peace and abatement of conflict are two domains where progress has been lacking. To this end, the Global Goals have emphasized on peace building as one of the major components.


  • The MDGs looked at quantitative achievements whereas the SDGs look at improving living in both quantitative and qualitative terms and leading to a sustainable end. For instance, while the former emphasized on increasing the enrolment rates and literacy levels, the latter additionally focused on the quality of education provided and the learning outcomes of the eligible population. Likewise, the concerns for monitoring, evaluating and accountability of the data, produced by the different countries in attaining social and economic development, which found little space in the MDGs, received a great thrust in the SDGs.

The preceding discussion makes it clear that the coverage of the SDG is far more inclusive in comparison to the ones laid down in the MDG. Four years down the line, countries across the world are progressing towards achieving the Global Goals. However, there are some issues that require attention.

Critiques of SDG

The SDGs have often been criticized because of its extremely structured approach in addressing the complex sustainability challenges. Human experiences and their problem solving skills vary to a great extent, therefore, straight jacketing human sustainability issues in a set of 17 pre defined goals may not be a very good idea. Such approach may be fruitful for some of the developed nations across the world, but it tends to undermine the strength of the bottom up approach involving community led development–a trend that dominates in the countries where culturally varying communities co-reside.

Scholarly debates (IISD, 2016) circumscribe the fact that unlike its predecessor–the MDGs–a neat and tidy set of eight goals, the SDGs might suffer the brunt of sprawling targets deemed to be achieved by 2030. The critiques argue that a 2030 agenda comprising of 17 goals and 169 targets is bound to collapse under its own weight.

The developmental goals are deemed to be mapped using 231 socio-economic indicators. But, capturing such a vast array has different implications for different countries. On the one hand, for the economically better off countries with higher infrastructural set up, capturing temporal data for quantifying the development might prove to be technically hazardous. On the other, for poorer nations, the entire exercise might divert attention from other crucial concerns that require immediate attention. For poorer nations it would be a tough challenge indeed to achieve even half the targets laid down in the Global Goals.

Moreover, for most countries, all the indicators are not readily available. Even for the ones for which they are existing, there may be some definitional issues which hinder cross-country comparability.


Global Goals are set on a mission of wider coverage of factors that define sustainability in all aspects of human life unlike its predecessor, the MDGs. Although the MDGs paved the way for achieving sustainable targets and showed how human beings could be driven towards leading a better life, it could not completely free human population from the agonies of unsustainable living conditions. The Global Goals are intended to take up the situation from where the MDGs have left in 2015. However, the successful realization of the agenda for 2030 would call for better coordination of the different tiers of governments so that there is harmony between local level schemes and the achievable targets. With more than a decade left to achieve the Global Goals, one can afford to be optimistic about eh endeavours of SDGs.

With more than half of humanity across the world now living in urban areas, some of it in most abject poverty, destitution and adverse circumstances, it is evident that the path to sustainable development must also pass through cities. The global urbanization trend is creating an urgency to find smarter ways to manage the accompanying challenges. Smart cities are seen as a way to overcome them. In a recent research published by the Centre for Globalization and Strategy. IESE Business School, 165 cities spread across 80 countries in the world have been mapped using indicators of human capital, social cohesion, economy, governance, transport, international outreach and technology to generate a composite index for cities in motion (CIM Index) (Berrone and Richart, 2018). While on one hand, New York tops the list of smart cities in CIM Index, Karachi in Pakistan emerges as the poorest performer. Three cities in India, namely Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, figure out in the 158th and 160th ranks, respectively.

A smart city is also used as a marketing label by private companies, industry and city associations themselves to usher financial investments and competitiveness. A global review of smart cities reveal a great deal of variety in their scale, economic structures, technological interventions and sectoral priorities. For instance, while Tokyo and New York are megacities or city-regions and international financial hubs, cities like Songdo in South Korea is confined to 1,500 acres only near the Incheon international airport while Dubuque, which proclaims itself to be the first smart city in the US, has a population of 60,000 only. By Indian standards, that may only translate in to a modestly dense middle-income locality or a portion of Dharavi slum in Mumbai. Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly immense potential of utilizing innovative technologies in increasing systemic efficiency, quality of services for citizens and municipal governance in urban local bodies. International best practices have not just shown low- bearing fruits in sectors of public transport and mobility, tax collections, etc., but also synergistic co-benefits in addressing widespread challenges such as climate change, clean air and conservation of water resources (Sethi and de Oliveira, 2018).

Early beginnings have been made by Indian cities in the ‘smart’ domain through the rubric of e-governance by many state and local governments in the last two decades. For instance, in Bengaluru, real time technology relays information of bus timings, congested routes and so on. In Indore, the traffic police have installed infrared devices to nab rule violators (Narayan, 2014). Similarly, in New Delhi, municipal corporations have an online system to disburse birth or death certificates, collect property taxes, selected bills and issue building permits as well.

While there is a worldwide call to battle challenges like climate change, poverty, inequality and sporadic development in developing societies through transformative sustainability, innovation and low-carbon societies, there is also the pressing need of the aspiring Indian middle-class for enhanced living standards, systems efficiency, place making akin to international standards. Hence, the Government of India has made attempts to strategically respond to the domestic audience through its Smart Cities Mission (SCM) and get into the international league of smart cities.

Having set off on a journey to become increasingly global, India still faces an uphill urban challenge when it comes to its aspirations of leap-frogging into the league of smart cities. According to the 2011 census, almost 32 per cent (377 million) of the country’s population lived in urban areas as against 28 per cent in 2001 and 17 per cent in 1991. While urban share of national GDP was 75 per cent in 2011, urban contribution to national greenhouse gases was estimated to be around 66.5 to 70.3 per cent (Livingstone, 2017). Official population projections suggest that urban population in India is about to grow at the pace of 2.83 per cent per annum from 340 million in 2008 to 590 million in 2030. (MoUD, 2011), 68 per cent of the world would be living in urban areas by 2050 (World Urbanization Prospects, 2018). By 2039, most estimates consider India would be 50 per cent urbanized. To keep pace with such growth, the country would have to spend USD 1.2 trillion in its urban areas (MoKinsey, 2010).

Officially launched by PM Narendra Modi on June 25, 2015, SCM aimed to make 100 major cities of the country smart through a competitive process of selection. The objective of the mission is to promote cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of ‘smart’ solutions. The focus is on sustainable and inclusive development and the idea is to look at compact areas, create a replicable model which will act like a lighthouse to other aspiring cities (NIUA, 2018). It further envisages that area-based development (ABD) will transform existing areas (retrofit and redevelop), including slums, into better planned ones thereby improving liveability of the whole city. New areas (Greenfields) will be developed around cities in order to accommodate the expanding population in urban areas. The Indian government committed to collaborate with states and local bodies in the implementation of the scheme and dedicated IMR 980,000 million for five years.

After several phases of screening, 100′ cities with diverse size, demographics, functional base, environmental and socio-economic characteristics have been selected across the length and breadth of the country (Fig. 1).

While SCM certainly shows a promising future through its inception guidelines and stated objectives, its progress in enhancing urban governance needs to be appraised with empirical facts and figures, against normative questions with which national urban policy and governance have been plagued; most fundamental being how would SCM address the prevailing governance issues in urban local bodies (ULB) that inter alia, include insufficient legal mandate, lack of trained planners, engineers, executives and ground staff, materials and equipment and most importantly the much required autonomy to generate and utilize their own funds. In doing so, does SCM empower, educate and include citizens in urban planning and management process, participation, sense of ownership, place making and urban identity? Additionally, do Indian smart cities enhance accountability, transparency, efficiency, real-time monitoring of services and funds associated with them? One would be further intrigued to know about how the mission would converge with existing government schemes or pressing public health related challenges like air pollution, personal transport modes and climate change.

A chronological review of several evaluation ‘ reports on this subject undertaken during 2017-18, conducted by both public and privately sponsored bodies, brings forth some crucial aspects of this mission being unfolded during its implementation.

First of all, SCM does not follow a standard definition of smart cities. The Smart City Guidelines keep it open to interpretation and aspiration of individual city, thereby leading to a general deviation in evaluating performance of cities for their information technology (IT) quotient. According to the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) assessment, the budget for IT in the top 60 cities is below 22 per cent (Anand et. al., 2018), which may render many of the projects under SCM being ‘unsmart’ as global definitions of smart city assume a high dependence on technology.

Secondly, there has been a basic concern about addressing public participation and urban equity objectives through SCM. The government has made attempts to justify involvement of people through cloud-sourcing information from smart phones which reveals public participation and technology dependence in recent years in the cities. Recent data of ministry shows investment in ABD projects as IN R 1642 million (80.8 per cent) concentrated in select enclaves, considerably surpassing those in pan city solutions amounting to INR 389,140 million (19.2 per cent, PTI, 2018). As the CPR report shows, sizes of the ABD vary from under 1 sq km (Aurangabad) to nearly 17 sq km (Coimbatore) whereas on an average an Indian smart city ABD lies at 4.9 sq km or 3 per cent of the city. Looking at the variation in the areal expanse of the selected smart cities in covering only 3.9 per cent area under ABD would not bring out much result. A greater focus on pan-city projects or increasing the coverage of ABDs would make significant improvement in quality of life for large number of people.

The recent findings of the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on Urban Development (2018a) also reveal that timely and enhanced utilization of funds need to commensurate with funds allocated and released for smart city projects. The 23rd Report of the PSC stated a utilization of INR 9310 million and utilization certificates of [NR 14,690 million against the released funds of INR 105,040 million (Table 1). Committees have been set up to explore the underutilization of funds and monitor the financial incapacity of the municipal governments to carry on the centres’ flagship schemes (Kumar, 2018). One of the noted challenges in this regard is the shortage of urban planners. The committee also highlighted reports of project implementation at the local level, emphasizing the need to improve coordination between implementing agencies to realize intended benefits of SCM; to make it more visible to the public. It underscores that since schemes such as Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AM RUT) and Swachh Bharat are mandated to work on similar infrastructure and urban renal projects, it is imperative for municipal authorities to ensure greater cooperation between each programme.


Thus, it could be concluded that despite not having an internationally accepted definition of a smart city or a national urbanization policy in India, effective governance of smart cities holds immense potential to achieve multiple benefits of sustainability, systems efficiency, economic growth, participatory governance and better quality of life. Considering that implementation of the SCM is underway, there is sufficient room for the Ministry, state governments, special purpose vehicles and the civil society to work towards a more sustainable, inclusive and affordable pattern of urban development.