How one defines state failure lies at the heart of any meaningful analysis of the failed states index (FSI). According to the Washington-based Fund for Peace that designed the index, a failed state is recognized by:
• loss of control over its territory, affecting its monopoly to legitimate use of physical force therein;
• erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions;
• inability to function as a full member of the international community.
The idea of Pakistan failed spectacularly in 1971 when it lost its eastern wing, and Bangladesh was born. The secession of parts of a country would thus seem to offer the ultimate criterion to recognize state failure. Its likely fragmentation would also qualify, which could happen to Afghanistan after 2014. So could their rapid descent into chaos, which makes Somalia, Congo, Sudan, South Sudan and Chad--all Sub-Saharan countries—uniquely singular as the countries most vulnerable to state failure. The international system abhors instability, and is interested therefore in recognizing early signs of states failing to stem this contagion from spreading.
Still, no state can island itself within the international system. State failure, for example, in any part of South Asia arising from ecological disaster or economic collapse or inability to contain terrorism could transcend borders and affect other parts of the region. Realistically, however, the international system has only a limited ability to influence the domestic processes that predicate state failure in this fashion.
By contrast, a failing state that is gravitating towards state failure can be recognized by weak and ineffective governance with loosening control over its territory; inability to provide public services; widespread corruption and criminality; refugees and involuntary movements of people; and sharp economic decline. There are huge difficulties, however, in parsing these subjective judgments to frame foreign policy. For instance, how much is the loss of territory under government control that would qualify a state to be “failing”? Are civil society movements indicting the State for tolerating corruption, providing immunity to criminals, but neglecting education, public health, social and civic services providing a truer identification of a failing state?
These questions are relevant for India. In 2013 it has been ranked 79 in the FSI listing of 178 states, improving its position slightly from 78 in 2012. Incidentally, Afghanistan (7) and Pakistan (13) lead the 2013 Index in South Asia, followed by Sri Lanka (28), Bangladesh (29), Nepal (30); all them fall in the highest sub-category “Alert” in the FSI, Bhutan (63), India (79), and Maldives (88) are some distance behind in the Index, and are included in the next sub-category “Warning”.
One must go deeper into the criteria for estimating the vulnerability of states adopted by the FSI to understand its construction. Some 12 factors, grouped under social, economic and political criteria, have been isolated. The social factors include: mounting demographic pressures; massive displacement of refugees; widespread vengeance-seeking group grievances; chronic and sustained human flight. The economic factors include uneven economic development on group lines, and severe economic decline. Political factors comprise criminalization and/or delegitimization of the state; deterioration of public services; suspension or arbitrary application of laws; extensive human rights abuses; security apparatus becoming a "state within a state"; rise of factional elites; and, intervention by external political agents.
The Fund for Peace apparently relies on its proprietary Conflict Assessment Software Tool (CAST) to analyze data to obtain final scores for the FSI. Based on reviewing a large number of documents, countries are given scores based on the 12 political, social and economic indicators listed above (which includes over 100 sub-indicators). These scores are checked against two key aspects viz. quantitative analysis and qualitative inputs based on major events in the countries under scrutiny. And, further cross-checked by human analysis to ensure that the raw data has not been misinterpreted by the computer software. It is claimed that the strength of this analysis lies in its methodological rigor and systematic integration of a wide range of data sources.
Still, major problems persist. India (77) has been adjudged as more likely to fail than the Maldives. The fragile nature of democracy in the Maldives is painfully evident. Moreover, global warming and rising sea levels present an existential danger to its territory. Placing the Maldives above India in the FSI is, therefore, egregious. It is also arguable whether factors like human flight and state legitimacy among the 12 indicators chosen are relevant to India. Further, in the total FSI score of 77.5 for India, the most significant are vengeance-seeking group grievances (8.2) and uneven economic development (8.1), closely followed by security apparatus becoming a "state within a state" (7.8) and mounting demographic pressure (7.5). Inflation, corruption, criminalization of the political system, dysfunctional bureaucracy and law and order apparatus seem more relevant with several parts of the country falling under the control of ethnic and Left Extremist groups. Sadly, the reality underlying failed and failing states is much more complex than made out in the FSI, which should be borne in mind.