Vehicles drive past G20 signage above a road in New Delhi Image Credit: AFP

India assumed the G20 Presidency amidst a global flux that can aptly be delineated as the polycrisis - an era of convergence of multiple complex problems at the same time. The intersectionality of the various problems over time and space includes inadequate, uncertain and unequal post-pandemic recovery endeavours, the supply-chain bottlenecks caused by the Ukraine crisis, the global stagflation (era of economic slump and inflation), and the perennial assault to the planet caused by climate change exacerbating the developmental challenges. Given this gloomy global backdrop pulling the brakes to the developmental goals as human civilisation approaches the mid-term review of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in September 2023, our development paradigm is at a critical crossroad. Can the Indian G20 Presidency act as a lighthouse in this tempestuous global condition?

The priorities and imperatives of the Indian G20 Presidency were aptly defined by Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi while unveiling the logo and the theme. This entails India not only emerging as an architect of the global agenda, but also a driver of change, sustainability and growth, and more importantly, a champion and voice of the aspirations of the global south. The Prime Minister’s vision of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) reflects on inclusiveness, further connoting the call for concerted global action for global common good. The hallmark of Indian G20 Presidency is embedded in the framework of 4Ds – the promotion of decarbonisation, digitalisation, equitable development, and the de-escalation of conflict.

India’s Amrit Kaal

As India completes 76 years of its independence, and walks through the Amrit Kaal (the term coined by Modi to delineate the 25 years from 2022 to 2047, the year of India’s 100 years of independence), it indeed shines as a bright spot in the dismal global economic and political backdrop. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman reiterated this fact during her budget speech while reinforcing that India’s 2022-23 growth numbers of around 7 per cent was the highest among all the major economies. Hence, there is no doubt that India sets a stellar example in its G20 Presidency in terms of economic performance, and can definitely showcase some of its replicable developmental models for the globe.

In a deeper dive into things, it can be interpreted that the 4Ds are embedded in the SDGs. As such, by integrating economic, social, and environmental objectives, the SDGs address the normative goals of equity, efficiency, and sustainability. Historically, India’s development trajectory has not entirely aligned with this approach. Nonetheless, there is a shift in thinking, as evidenced by the government’s attempt to provide social security to vulnerable populations during the pandemic-induced lockdown. Despite their best efforts, a significant portion of the population remained underserved, primarily due to persistent institutional issues related to the unregistered informal sector and the challenge of identifying the large migrant labour force in official records. Market forces have played a critical role in supporting the poor and vulnerable, with the lockdown negatively impacting these informal labourers. As a result, the SDGs pose a governance challenge for India’s development policy machinery.

Dr Nilanjan Ghosh

In the past nine years, notable policy measures have been implemented to enhance the country’s development, with a particular focus on improving both its physical and human capital. However, the outbreak of the pandemic caused a disruption in the global economic and development arenas, impacting the progress towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is evident that realising the Indian aspiration of achieving $5 trillion and $10 trillion in economic growth requires a foundation built on robust fundamentals, empowered by the principles of the SDGs.

Interestingly, while large parts of the global north were reeling because of the onslaught of the pandemic, India rolled out the largest vaccination drive that the planet has ever witnessed. The biggest enabler in this process has been technology. Further, India’s Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana and the Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana (in sum, Jan Dhan Aadhar Mudra, or JAM trinity) has enabled women’s financial inclusion and women entrepreneurship. Vaccine Maitri, a humanitarian initiative undertaken by the Indian government to provide COVID-19 vaccines to countries around the world, stands as a glaring example of development cooperation. Further, Indian model of development cooperation in the form of unconditionality of assistance to development partners, by itself, is a unique model as compared to the existing frameworks of those of US, UK, China and other nations. A large part of the global south needs this type of development partnership, though Indian proportional contribution in quantitative terms is much lower than the others. Again, a recent ORF report that constructs a Climate Performance Index finds that India ranks first among all G20 members in terms of overall climate performance, due to its significantly low per capita contributions to carbon and GHG emissions, very limited share in legacy emissions relative to its population needs, least rate of per capita energy use, and significant efforts towards expanding its climate-regulating land cover by 6 per cent compared its 1992 levels. All these stand as unique replicable cases that provide valuable lessons for the world.

India’s credentials and G20 Leaders’ Summit

There are two special credentials that make Indian G20 Presidency stand out so far. The first is with mainstreaming gender in its attempt to promote gender equality and probably going one step ahead – gender is being treated as a cross-cutting theme across various verticals, thereby sending a signal to the rest of the world on its gender commitments. The second credential lies with the Indian efforts to ensure that Africa is an integral part of all global conversations. India, being the second of four successive emerging economies or the quadrilateral to lead the G20 (Indonesia, India, Brazil and South Africa are the G20 Presidents between 2022 and 2025), has not merely been a prominent voice representing the Global South, but have especially put forward the unique developmental imperatives of the African landmass.

The G20 Leaders’ Summit is slated to take place during September 9-10, 2023. The G20 generally operates through the Finance and Sherpa tracks, while there are engagement groups too in the forms of the Business20 (the official dialogue forum representing the global business community), Labour20, Parliament20, Science20 (comprising the national science academies of the G20 countries), SAI20 (or Supreme Audit Institutions 20, a forum to discuss the important role played by SAIs globally in ensuring transparency and accountability), Startup20 (initiated for the first time under Indian presidency), Think20 (the think-tank engagement group) and Urban20. Various engagement groups including the Think20 have prepared their Communique consisting of the recommendations for the G20. These have significant components that put forward the anguishes, ambitions, and aspirations of the global south.

UAE a Special Guest

Various nations outside the G20 have also been invited to the G20 Leaders’ Summit. Apart from inviting Bangladesh, Egypt, Mauritius, Netherlands, Nigeria, Singapore, and Spain, India has also reached out to the Gulf region to invite the UAE and Oman as Special Guests. The invite to the UAE has special significance given the fact that UAE-India relations have witnessed tremendous growth on various fronts, beginning from trade and investment to geopolitics and culture. India-UAE Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), cooperations in plurilateral fora such as I2U2 and the UAE-France-India trilateral cooperation initiative are all cases in point. Further, the convergence of India’s presidency of the G20 and the UAE’s presidency of COP28 is definitely important, as this provides both nations the opportunity to amplify the voice of the global south from the SDG and climate action perspectives on global platforms.

India definitely looks at G20 Summit to place itself as a major investment destination, as a global driver of growth and development, and as a leader of some of the best replicable practices for the world to emulate, for achievement of the SDGs. On its 77th Independence Day, as India emerges as a major global power and a bright spot in the midst of the polycrisis, Indian G20 Presidency can aptly be described as the lighthouse in the tempest that the world is presently witnessing.

— The writer is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation, an independent India-based think tank, and Director of the Think20 Secretariat under India’s G20 Presidency