India Is On Its Way to Becoming a Fragile State

If steps are not taken now, failure will set in.

Shredded social cohesion is the first symptom of fragility. Credit: PTI

Shredded social cohesion is the first symptom of fragility. Credit: PTI

It’s really the Americans who worry obsessively about other peoples’ fragile states, not us. They feel threatened by them as places where terrorism breeds and some target practice is legitimate. Unlike us, the Americans have think tanks that measure fragility in pecking orders. The Fund for Peace, for instance, has been putting out data using the ‘Failed’ or ‘Fragile State’ index since 1957. India is in the orange  or “warning” category after which it will come to the red “alert” category. Apparently things got worse during the decade following 2005. Finland tops the stability index at 18.7, India is at  77 while the most fragile South Sudan earns 114. Pakistan comes in at 99.

I write this article not from any think tank perspective but to share my own sense of a looming fragility about India that has been heightened during the last few months. To share this sense with readers, I have chosen a few articles from The Wire which describe, for me, different facets of the multiple conditions of fragility. They are referred to in five groups as multiple facets – or “fragility conditions” – to get a broader pattern of our inability to cope with ourselves.

These failing conditions have not appeared suddenly like some fever. They have been creeping up on us for decades. Successive governments have covered them up and denied they exist. Each of these conditions – (1) our shredded social cohesion; (2) the uncertainty in the parameters of economic development; (3) a deliberate abrogation of constitutional responsibilities; (4) the cover ups by pushing unreliable macro data into the public domain; and (5) the deteriorating security arrangements in which we live – forms narratives within the epic of our looming crisis.

The perceptions and arguments have not been taken from any academic research paper or think tank policy analysis. They come from the personal experience of having participated in trying to ease the nightmares of ordinary people living in failed states. Each time the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) or United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) sent me on European Union funded missions into the grey parts of Europe to incubate urban regeneration as a healing instrument, whether it was to Kosovo, Bulgaria,  Cyprus, Romania or Montenegro, or, further afield, to Palestine and Central Asia, I saw and deeply understood how and why a country slides into unstoppable collapse.

These were not states whose governments had committed slight errors that could be set right. They had far too many interconnecting bad sectors that could not be easily set right. And during all these missions, one engaged with so many citizens, saw so much physical, mental and financial breakdown, talked to so many seeped in disillusionment that, really speaking, one had no idea where to begin the resurrection.

They could never  believe they had been terribly governed, robbed and fragmented by overbearing rulers who had squeezed out their intimate community identities and their abilities to be self reliant. For them, life had been so good and then the rest of the world conspired to ruin it.

But state fragility or failure is not a Black Swan event at all. It is a condition that cooks slowly while its sectoral weakenings link across and spread throughout the body politic of the state. Governments can see fragility coming, as happened in the Balkans, and there they hung on, ruling by misleading everybody including themselves, resorting to polarisation and using the distraction to stash away the national wealth before descending into armed conflict.

In India, the process of the incubation of fragility in India begun decades ago. If steps are not taken now, failure will set in.

Shredded social cohesion

In some ways, the incubation is already over. Just by reading a few articles on The Wire, one is convinced that we are are already living in an era of irreversible shredded social cohesion. One such warning was given by Arshad Afzal Khan who has reminded us, in a piece in December 2017, about how the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 started this slide into lasting internal strife.

The complicity of L.K. Advani, who went on to become India’s deputy prime minister, was evident as he directed the demolition and encouraged non-state actors to help weaken our cohesion. In another article on the same watershed event Prof  Thomas Hansen wrote:

“In the triumphalist narratives of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Shiv Sena, December 6 was the beginning of a new era where a righteously angry Hindu majority began to shape public discourse and political life in the country. For everybody else, December 6 marks the beginning of an era of unbridled majoritarianism that has polarised and divided Indian society more deeply than ever.”

Comments that tell us how we have irrevocably lost confidence in the ability of the government to create lasting peace and stability.

Reading these two pieces together and the one written by Siddharth Varadarajan titled ‘Twenty-Five Years On, India Has Still to Live Down the Shame of the Babri Masjid’s Demolition‘, one  gets “a sense of perspective on what the demolition of the Babri Masjid meant then and means today when we consider the global outrage that greeted the destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001”. The recent book by Nazia Erum on the experiences of Muslim schoolchildren across India tells us how deep the polarising project has run.

In the first of the five symptoms of fragility, clearly we have gone beyond the tipping point into the “alert” category.

The economics of the present situation

When we come to the second category, we find our sense of increasing uncertainty in the trajectory of our economic development is clearly justified. There are a number of articles which, if read together, describe different aspects of our long-term economic failure.

Most authors have used a range of external indicators to question progress and provided ample indications about failure. What governments have succeeded in doing all these years is to lie about it while letting extreme income and gender inequality increase to ludicrous proportions. Piketty and Chancel’s conclusions in ‘Inequality Rapidly Rising in India Since 1980s‘ that was published in September warns us that since the early 1980s, India’s growth has been unevenly distributed within the top 10% group. “This further reveals the unequal nature of liberalisation and deregulation processes. India in fact comes out as a country with one of the highest increase in the top 1% income share concentration over the past 30 years.” The latest Oxfam report confirms things this prevalence of inequality.

The share of national income accruing to the top 1% of income earners is now at its highest level since the creation of the Indian income tax in 1922, says the paper. Credit: Reuters/Vijay Mathur

Since the early 1980s, India’s growth has been unevenly distributed within the top 10% group. Credit: Reuters/Vijay Mathur

Prem Shankar Jha’s piece in October, ‘How the RBI Destroyed the Indian Economy‘, blames the central bank squarely for our economic ruin. “India is now saddled with Rs 11,40,000 crore worth of abandoned projects, and 40 of its largest companies – the cream of its new entrepreneurial class – are facing ruin.”

Divya Guha’s piece on India’s ‘Bankrupt Billionaires‘ in December gives the kind of alarming information that confirms our fragile condition on the economic front. She quotes a 1999 World Bank report that regards India as “suffering a borderline banking crisis when NPAs (dud assets) reached 11% in 1993-94. In 1995, NPAs of 27 public sector banks were estimated at 20%”. She brings us upto date, almost 20 years on and quotes a CARE rating about how NPAs and restructured loans are at an alarming level of 14-15% of total advances while grappling with $120 billion of gross non-performing loans (90% of which are owned by public sector banks) and $25 billion advances that have been restructured  by giving the bankrupt millionaires yet another chance to repay.

The analysis of the Japanese bullet train by Bishwajit Bhattacharyya in October asserts ‘How the Japanese Loan for India’s Bullet Train is a Rip Off‘ and how the project’s economic viability is suspect” for committing Rs 110,000 crores of public funds is “a tragedy for India.”

However, the government continues to rule outrageously in this sector and commits gross errors of judgment as with demonetisation and GST, which are taken up by Karan Thapar where he quotes Montek Singh saying ‘Raghu Rajan’s Note Advising Against Demonetisation Should be Made Public‘ and M.K. Venu‘s piece in November – ‘As Opposing Narratives on Demonetisation Clash, Even Modi Cant Fool All the People All the Time‘. It would seem that our slide into becoming a fragile economy cannot be reversed.

Constitutional responsibilities

We seem to end up watching  a government becoming overbearing while it makes inexplicable errors of judgment. Because of the onset of fragility, the government imagines that its constitutional responsibilities are hindering its way. By getting better scores in parliament it hopes to re-draft these responsibilities, particularly those in the the preamble of the constitution.

S.V. Narayan’s piece  in December “How Far Have We Deviated From The Ideology of Our Constitution?”, analyses how governments have turned their back on their constitutional responsibilities. There is data about our larger constitutional failures  (77% households have no regular salaried person), about our economic failures (the share of national wealth of the bottom 40% has declined a further 4% in the last 20 years), about our desperate food situation to the category of “serious” in the last three years from 55 points to 100 in the Global Hunger Index.

Going  beyond the failures of fulfilling our constitutional responsibilities, there are questions about the role of the courts which are worrying. In Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar’s interview of Ashwani Kumar, the former law minister  “believes that the expansion of judicial power, the enlargement of the judicial review jurisdiction to embrace almost every activity in the country is the result of a steep decline in the credibility of the political executive and the failure of the legislative and executive branches…..”.

Supreme Court. Credit: Reuters

There are questions about the role of the courts which are worrying. Credit: Reuters

The failure to  respect constitutional responsibilities has already  filtered down to the  community level. Basant Rath,  a serving police officer, writes in a  November issue about the failures in our system of governance during the massacre of Sikhs in November 1984 and explains how “between that fateful day in 1984 and today, India has had nine prime ministers, 14 home ministers, 16 cabinet secretaries and 16 Delhi police chiefs. The might of the Indian state has failed to bring justice to the doorsteps of the victims and their loved ones.”

This failure gets endorsed by another former law minister, Shanti Bhushan, who is so clear about the sad state of the judiciary and suggests that “If the Supreme Court of India is to be saved….. a bench with all the judges must take stock of the situation….”  And raises very serious questions about the future of the Supreme Court. The recent press conference by four senior judges of the apex court vividly drove home the same point.

Most worrying is the ease with which the executive, the judiciary and the majority in the legislature are collectively and  independently evading their constitutional responsibilities. Perhaps they too can sense the onset of fragility.

Covering up the real picture

As our overall situation gets more difficult to set right and as news about social unrest, economic plunder and unconstitutional righteousness begins to surface in the media, the reality gets hidden by an insecure  government in power.  The smoke screen to fudge the real vulnerability of  our economic and social edifice can only be counteracted by hiding facts and producing unreliable data about the true nature of our deep crisis. 

The Wire‘s articles show that senior economists are simply not buying the data being put out by the government. The most  shocking instance of how data fudging  has become the norm comes from Sohini C., who tells us a moving story of two doctors and a history of India hiding its diseases. “Suppressing figures on dengue, and communicable diseases in general, is a national habit. An Al Jazeera investigation published in 2016 uncovered evidence that malaria figures had been manipulated in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.” The author  quotes Dr Zarir Udwadia, one of the best known experts on tuberculosis worldwide and a practising doctor in Mumbai about how he felt that “With the Indian government, it is all about hiding the severity of the situation” and how he “can’t trust any official figures.”

Apart from the lies being told about our national health situation, we should be alarmed by the revelations of a serving police officer, and I quote Basant Rath again in another piece in December 2017  who asks us not to take India’s crime statics seriously and explains: “Suppressing crimes is an exalted art form practiced as a matter of reflex in our police stations. Truthful registration of crime has never been a cherished ideal for our SHOs and their IPS leadership beyond the seminar rooms and police training academies. Behind every chief minister who wanted to tom-tom his and her achievements on the law and order front, there is a set of willing and able hand-picked director generals of police who are pliant and pliable enough to implement the policy of systematic crime suppression across states”. Professor Blom Hansen, who is quoted earlier, places this in context  and explains how “the term ‘alternative facts’ was coined by a spokesperson for Donald Trump, referring to his penchant for lies, exaggeration and his reliance on the vast network of racist conspiracy theorists…” and how “a similar process but on an even larger scale began in India in the late 1980s.”

It is understandable that  our counter political process is unable to resist this slide. Unfortunately, historically such trajectories towards fragility and failure have ended in what Piketty terms “shocks” to the system: two catastrophic wars, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression. Add to these, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resultant situation in the Balkans, where I worked.

Breakdown of security

More alarming than the other four conditions is the lack of security arrangements because we already seem to be  living within a state that has no reliable security arrangements.

A safe environment  in which all our communities can live an ordinary life in our urban centres has now disappeared for a long time. Four decades ago, when my children were born, that same urban environment where I live was much safer for our children and our women.

Today, the government is no longer  capable of  providing reliable security  in any of our cities, nor does it have have the capability to deal with wider internal strife and the increasing frequency of natural global  disasters. Private security agencies are thriving. Basant Rath recalls 1984 when “the Delhi police had facilitated the massacre by driving the Sikhs out of the gurudwara, leaving them at the mercy of the mob.” Our lives have become insecure at the micro-urban street levels as well as at the macro- state level as in Kashmir, Jharkhand  and Chattisgarh, where the security of entire communities has vanished altogether and the government appears incapable of providing trustworthy resolutions.

The mysterious death of  Judge B.H. Loya and the police handling of the Aarushi-Hemraj murder case which Ajay K. Mehra describes as a “perfect example of why India’s criminal justice system needs reform” in a piece written in October, is in fact a perfect example that  illustrates just how deep callous misgovernance has  seeped  into our  daily lives – a callousness we now accept as a normality.

If taken singly, each of these five conditions, and the factors that constitute them, should occasion deep introspection and concern. Taken together, I’m afraid, they represent significant signs of our drift towards “Alert Fragility”.

Romi Khosla is an architect and planner with a background in economics and accountancy.

Join The Discussion