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The Right to Development and Sustainable Development- Reflections on Global and South Asian Developments


Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Sakshi Sharda, Chhavi Kapoor, Ishika Chaudhary, Mahima Kapoor

To deliberate upon the notion of development as a right and how it relates to sustainable development, the Centre for Human Dignity and Development (CHDD), Impact Studies Centre (GISC) IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, and Centre for Development Communication and Studies (CDECS), Jaipur organized a talk on “The Right to Development and Sustainable Development – Reflections on Global and South Asian Developments” as part of its series on The State of Development Discourses #CohesiveDevelopment.


Prof Sunil Ray Former Director, A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna; Advisor, CDECS, and IMPRI started the session by highlighting that the right to development comes before attaining sustainable development. He stressed the need for a new theoretical construct that goes beyond dominant development paradigms. It is important to look at the international law perspective of development, develop an analytical discourse of development that rests on international solidarity, and bridge the gap between law and reality.

Development as a Concept and Law

Dr Shyamani

Dr. Shyami Puvimanasinghe Author and Advocate on International Solidarity, Human Rights, and Sustainable Development started her presentation by noting that the right to development is a human right. Usually, we associate human rights with civil and political rights like the right to free speech and the right to assembly but they also include social and economic rights like the right to water and the right to development. Development has traditionally been in the hand of economists.

International law recognizes development as an inalienable right as well. The UN in 1986 defined the right to development as the right of all individuals and all people to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, political, and social development. The right has origins in decolonization. Many developing countries were achieving political freedom but didn’t have true economic freedom. The right to development applies to all levels from the local to the international and is rooted in non-discrimination and equality. It’s a multifaceted right involving a range of issues from sovereignty over natural resources to peace, security, disarmament, and international cooperation.

She used the demand of developing countries for a waiver on the TRIPS agreement to avail the Covid-19 vaccine as an example of a conflict in international cooperation. Inequalities have exacerbated during the pandemic and this poses further threats for developing countries. Development is a duty as well which works on three levels – nationally, internationally, and collectively.

African governments started the discourse on the right to development which read to a fuller understanding of development. Since then, we have moved towards the idea of sustainable development, that is, the development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their needs. The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement, the Adis Ababa Action Agenda on financing development were all landmarks in sustainable development.

Case Studies from South Asia

Dr. Puvimanasinghe narrated a story of ancient Sri Lanka to explain that the idea of sustainability has been rooted in the subcontinent’s culture for a long time. The story’s moral was that land belongs to all living things and humans are just the guardians. Similarly, governance is like stewardship where the government looks after public resources for everyone. The Bhopal gas tragedy case in 1984 showed how the legal system could not cope with the tragedy that caused the death of so many people. It showed that the law had to find solutions in conflicting intersections of development, human rights, and the environment.

The 1991 PIL of Suraj Kumar vs. The Union of India was a landmark case and paved the way for cases being fought in the interest of the public and not just personal interest. The impact of the Indian PILs in the 1980s and 1990s spread in the subcontinent to Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. This was the South-Asian sustainable development jurisprudence of the 1980s-2000s. She spoke about the Eppawal case in Sri Lanka as another example of law intervening to protect life, livelihoods, and the environment.  

Dr. Puvimanasinghe said that the right to development is the key to sustainable development and that the right had to be interpreted dynamically. The 1992 Declaration on Environment and Development stated that the right to development must be realized equitably keeping in mind the environmental and developmental needs of present and future generations.  The SDGs too is anchored in human rights.

Prof Ray commented that the perspective of law on development raised further questions and asked about the role of the present international scenario and global order in influencing it.

Connecting Development and Sustainable Development

Dr. Joss Chathukulam Director, Centre for Rural Management, Kottayam remarked that sustainable development needed a critical multi-disciplinary approach. He spoke about the relevance of the Gandhian approach- the world had enough for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed. The equitable distribution of resources and moderation in consumption is essential to achieve sustainable development. Dr. Chathukulam identified the following concerns- climate change, human rights, poverty, pollution, loss of biodiversity, and discriminatory liberalization, and urbanization. He said that a solidarity economy, decentralization, and cooperatives were required to achieve sustainable development goals.

Democratic states guided by constitutional morality and public legality dealt with the pandemic more efficiently than states with populist and authoritarian governments. Democracy and development are the answer to connecting the right to development and sustainable development.

The Existing Paradigm

Prof Shylendra

Prof H S Shylendra Professor, Social Science Area, Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA), Gujarat spoke about the right-based interventions in India in the last two decades like MGNREGA and the Right to Education. When talking of the right to development, it was important to focus on enforceability. Many developed countries haven’t shown their support for the right, prominently the United States of America.

He noted that both the right to development and neoliberalism had developed around the same time and did not converge in theory. Although the RTE was passed in India in 2002, it was only implemented by 2009. It took about 50 years to recognize that primary schooling was a right and 7 years to figure how its enforcement. Such schemes just satisfy a façade with no compulsions to the government. We need new theories and new frameworks which account for enforceability and accountability. There is a need to move beyond the right to development. PILs are spontaneous interventions and do not lead to broad-based interventions, which can create transformational change.

Dr. Puvimanasinghe agreed that there was a lot that theory and principles left lacking. A new model with alternate paradigms for development was required. The human rights approach by no means is complete on its own. Consumerism has been pushed by MNCs and elites and sustainable development will have to address it to overcome it. She took Kerela as a model of governance that took the human rights approach and ensured a standard of health and education for everyone. Democracy and decentralization would help to create a vibrant civic space with high local participation.

Dr. Puvimanasingheexplained that the right to development is a reaction to the global order. Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights professed that everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which all human rights and freedoms can be realized for all people. These are ideals that are created before enforcement and accountability. Human rights are a pathway towards that justice. The gaps and injustices in global order were often filled by South-South cooperation. During the pandemic, the Global South had shared resources in the form of vaccines, PPE kits, and even sent doctors to afflicted areas.  

The Legal Framework Supporting the Right

Dr. Gopal Krishna, Fellow, International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Berlin; Guest Fellow, Faculty of Law, Humboldt University, Berlin remarked that in the face of the globalization of disease and assault on constitutionalism, the law did not have the solution for climate change and humanitarian crisis. Law is a second-order subject and can only preserve the status quo.

The 1984 Bhopal cases are still being fought and the welfare state is melting away. The right to development does not challenge the status quo. Karl Polanyi has said that self-regulating markets cannot be regulated by law because of the economic determinism behind lawmaking. He found law and the right to development to be an unethical approach due to its inherent corpocentrism. Development as a process cannot be made equivalent to an outcome. This made law as a discipline philosophically challenged. 

Dr. Puvimanasinghe replied that her skepticism of legal tools did not run as deep. Economics too had failed to protect health, nature, and human well-being in an ideal way. All disciplines have their shortcomings and perhaps their collaboration would provide answers. Law could bring in management and regulations. The non-enforcement of law is a problem and the right to development is itself controversial with countries agreeing to it in principle but not implementation.

She said that there was a movement towards creating a legally binding convention of development. Developed countries aren’t showing support for it so far but negotiations have started. Law doesn’t just come in after the damage has been caused but through policy and regulation, it can prevent the damage in the first place.

Prof Ray

Prof Ray concluded the session by raising concern over the lack of a conclusive statement from the discussion. He felt that the conflict between the capitalist system and sustainable development had not been addressed. The core of the problem lies in the distribution of resources that cannot be changed without systemic change. The rhetoric of development just created arguments over arguments. To move beyond it, the global order and the power relationships have to be discussed. The Global South could perhaps address the problem through academic and intellectual solidarity.

Acknowledgment: Sonali Pan is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

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