Interview | Director General, Sashashtra Seema Bal, Archana Ramasundaram

“It’s not Enough to Give all those Modern Equipment to Troops on a Border Outpost; They Have to be Trained too to Make Use of That Technology”

Given that SSB today straddles two roles — border management and internal security — what are your modernisation plans and priorities?
Our modernisation plan has two components. One pertains to border management, which has very specific requirements. The other component pertains to our infrastructure development and roles other than border management. For instance, seven battalions of Sashashtra Seema Bal (SSB) are deployed in Left Wing Extremism (LWE) area and five battalions in Jammu and Kashmir. In the Northeast too, we have had a Disputed Area Belt since 2014 where one battalion and three companies are deployed.

Hence, our modernisation has to factor-in all these requirements. For border management, we have selected some border outposts (BOPs) and are equipping them with better surveillance tools. We already have cameras but we are trying to see if better technology is available. In some places, we are also introducing X-ray baggage scanners. In our area of operations, we have instances of drug trafficking. Last year, there was a record seizure of narcotics on Indo-Nepal border. We do have sniffer dogs and have been training our people with Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB). SSB has its own Dog Breeding and Training Centre at Dera, Alwar in Rajasthan. Technology apart, training is another aspect on which we have been focusing.

A two-week BOP level training module was organised for all the ranks at their respective locations in BOPs with the help of various agencies like Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB), Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), National Investigation Agency (NIA) and NGOs to enhance the overall effectiveness and professionalism of the force. All SSB personnel have undergone this training and are discharging their duties with more clarity and professionalism.

In terms of surveillance equipment, we are procuring two UAVs as well — Netra II — developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and two laser-based explosive cum narcotic detectors for Indo-Nepal Border and Indo-Bhutan Border. As far as internal security is concerned, our focus is on communication and safe mobility. In some parts of the country, our troops are deployed in remote areas, so communication is one aspect which needs our attention. The remote locations are well connected with V-SAT Ku Band Satellite terminal, WAN besides phone and HF/VHF Wireless communication. The troops are also being briefed regularly about their area of responsibility over Global Information System (GIS). The next focus is mobility. Last year, SSB procured 1,046 types of vehicles i.e. 791 motorcycles (763 for seven LWE units), 174 light vehicles, 52 medium vehicles and 22 heavy vehicles. Procurement of seven Mine Protected Vehicles (MPV) is under process and supply is likely to be completed by shortly.

Director General, Sashashtra Seema Bal, Archana Ramasundaram

Do you have any armoured personnel carriers and MPV?
We have Light Armoured Troop Carrier (LATC) and Mahindra B.P vehicles. Last year, we placed an order for MPVs with Ordnance Factory Board (OFB). These will be useful in LWE areas as well as in Jammu and Kashmir where safety of the troops while moving around is a matter of great concern.

The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is wary of using MPVs because of the IEDs in the LWE areas. Does this weigh on your mind too?
The CRPF has been in the LWE sector for quite some time and they are there in large numbers. We agree with their concern given their experience to handle such situations. However, the utility of these vehicles cannot be denied altogether. Ours is a very limited presence. We are there in only three states: Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. MPV is very effective in anti-naxal operations / internal security (ANO/IS) duties and local commanders are using it as per appreciation of the situation. MPVs are being used by the CRPF in ANO theatre as well as in Jammu and Kashmir.

When Kargil review committee recommended ‘One Border One Force’, it was envisaged that border guarding forces will be different from those engaged in internal security (IS). However, now it seems that all Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) are involved in IS duties. Does this not compromise your core competency?
I do not see much of a contradiction. Of our authorised battalion strength, 73, (of which we have already raised 67 and 2 are loaned to NDRF), only 54 are meant for the border guarding role. The rest are termed as reserve battalions. These are meant for training. They are also at the disposal of ministry of home affairs (MHA).

But you have raised a valid point. The multiplicity of roles throws up training and equipment challenges, as well as the mindset of the jawan who stands at a BOP on Indo-Bhutan or Indo-Nepal border. His approach, his focus, his way of handling has to be very different from how his counterpart would behave in the LWE area or in counter-insurgency. Hence, we have to ensure that the people we are sending to Jammu and Kashmir have adequate pre-induction training.

What about equipment? Different theatres call for different equipment.
Right, and in this respect, the MHA has been very supportive; wherever we are deployed with sister forces, the level of authorisation is the same.

Are small arms also part of the modernisation programme?
Yes, both assault rifles and bulletproof vests, in addition to several other apparatus that we have got, such as anti-riot equipment. We are also in the process of acquiring sub-machine guns and better variant of pistols, which most probably would be Glock.

Will this be through open tendering or a centralised process?
It is the same procedure which the other CAPF follow. We procure certain things ourselves in accordance with qualitative requirements (QRs) approved by the MHA.

Does it mean that there is no centralised requirement for all the other forces?
It happens both ways. Sometimes, as in the case of Assault Rifles (AR), MHA has advised CRPF to issue a global tender, which is in a very advanced stage. But this happens only for a few items.

What is your main assault weapon at the moment?
It is INSAS but there is also authorisation for the Assault Rifles. We envisage procurement of about 7,000 AR. We already have 3,000 ARs. Apart from this, SSB is also procuring Under Barrel Grenade Launcher (UBGL) and Multi Grenade Launcher (MGL) for units deployed in ANO theatre as they are very effective weapons in such scenario. SSB is also procuring 3,000 Bullet Resistant Jackets, 6,765 BR Helmet, 900 Bullet Proof Mobile Morcha and 1,000 BP Patka.

Director General, Sashashtra Seema Bal, Archana Ramasundaram

What other programmes are going on at the moment in terms of small arms and at what stage are they?
Sub-machine guns (SMG) and Glock pistols. As SMGs are authorised under the modernisation plan they are still in an initial phase. But as a whole, we are not short of anything.

Where do troops train for LWE deployments?
Pre-induction training is conducted at training centres of the concerned states. However, before that the troops are trained at CIJ&W SSB Gwaldam (Uttarakhand) for 36 days. We have 11 training centres. The training module is revised and fine-tuned every now and then depending upon the requirements.

Is the training programme similar to other CAPFs?
Yes. For example, for LWE areas, the pre-induction training is sometimes held at other training centres. Sometimes, it is done in concerned states. I have always believed that while technology is essential, it is not enough. One has to work on the human element also. So, it is not enough to give all those modern equipment to troops on a BOP; they have to be trained too to make use of that technology.

Are you using pellet guns in Kashmir?
Wherever we are deployed with CRPF, we use the same equipment. Our troops are provided with pellet guns along with other non-lethal weapons.

Getting back to border management, what are the major challenges that you face?
The biggest challenge is that these are open borders. Also, the border pillars demarcating the boundary at many places are missing, which leads to the dispute over the claim of territory. The road connectivity in border areas is another impediment in ensuring effective surveillance of the area of responsibility. Now, the border road along the INB/IBB has been sanctioned by the government of India and the construction work has started in many states (Uttarakhand, UP, Bihar). Once the road is constructed our mobility will improve and we will be able to manage the border more effectively. We need to have good level of intelligence inputs to nab the criminals on such open and porous borders. We had our civilian cadre and we have been using them as our intelligence wing. But over the years, it was turning out to be insufficient. Hence, intelligence gathering is also a big challenge. We have requested MHA to sanction a full-fledged intelligence wing to us on the pattern of the Border Security Force (BSF). We are expecting a favourable outcome. The other challenges stem from this, for instance, interception, checking of cross-border crimes and so on.

How do integrated check-posts work?
In SSB’s area of responsibility, we have two Integrated Check-Posts (ICPs). Both are in Bihar, at Raxaul and Jogbani. Two more are to be constructed in Uttar Pradesh and also on Indo-Bhutan border. At the ICPs all agencies concerned with border management such as customs, immigration and security forces etc would work under the same roof with support facilities like cargo inspection sheds, warehouse, quarantine block, isolation bay, banks, parking lots etc. ICPs function under the Land Port Authority of India (LPAI), which is the coordinating agency under the MHA. The security infrastructure is not available at these ICPs’, however, LPAI has now agreed to provide the same. In all future ICPs, the provision of security infrastructure will be catered for in the master plan itself from the beginning.

What are the challenges in LWE and Kashmir?
In LWE, we are deployed in three places, and our challenges are similar to those faced by other forces. We have to ensure perfect coordination with other agencies, be it CRPF, local police or local administration, as our logistics are provided by them. On the border, we take care of ourselves, but on IS duties, we have to depend upon the local administration.

What kind of tactical cooperation do you have with Nepal and Bhutan?
We have Border Coordination Committee meetings at the level of Commandants and DIGs and of course, local administration. Meetings at the secretary level are also being held regularly, both with Nepal and Bhutan. With Nepal, there is a provision for DG level meetings annually. Two such meetings were held in the year 2012 and 2014. The meeting could not be held in 2015 and 2016, for which we have approached MHA to expedite the case and approach Nepalese authorities to conduct the meeting at the earliest. However, with Bhutan no such arrangements exist so far. I have proposed to MHA that we must start DG-level interaction with Bhutan as well. We also do joint patrolling with the Nepalese border guarding forces.

What happened to the proposal about maintaining the distance of 3.5 km between two BOPs?
The distance is different for the borders with Nepal and Bhutan; but it will be optimised once we raise all our border outposts. As on date, we have raised 626, of which 473 are on Indo-Nepal border and the remaining are on Indo-Bhutan border. We need to raise a total of 734 BOPs.

What kind of role does SSB play in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief?
SSB plays the role of one of the first responders if there is a disaster. And most of our BOPs are located in flood prone or forest areas. Wherever there has been a disaster, even if it’s a forest fire in Uttarakhand, SSB, has responded. Now I’ve been trying to fine-tune this and increase the number of our Regional Response Centres from the current three, so that there is at least one at each Sector Headquarters. We now have 18 Sector Headquarters. The last one was raised at Tezpur. We want that personnel deployed at RRCs be specially trained in disaster rescue and relief. They should also have specific equipment and tools so as to efficiently perform their role.

We recently made a presentation to National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). They said we should go ahead with our proposal to MHA. While we are not asking for additional manpower, we do need apparatus and equipment. They suggested that one of our training school could also be used. There is a stipulation that each CAPF should have a training school, which is a common training school for disaster management. We will develop one of our existing training centres as Centre of Excellence (CoE) for disaster management training, where personnel from other CAPFs, state police and even from friendly foreign countries can come. Based on their suggestion, we have proposed SSB Training Centre at Salonibari (Assam) to be developed as such CoE. This idea has been welcomed by NDMA also during their meeting with us.

If you look at our BOPs, nearly 326 out of 626 are in disaster prone areas; 60 are in high altitude areas; 238 are in forests; and 28 are in flood prone areas. And all 626 BOPs are located in the Himalayan belt along seismic Zone 5 which is prone to earthquakes.

I would also like to highlight another aspect of SSB. Last year, we rescued 533 victims of human trafficking. Some of them were child labourers. This is one issue where I would like our civic action programme to focus on. We have signed a MoU with the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) for enhancing skills of our personnel and their families. DG, SSB is the chairperson of WARB also (a charge given by MHA to DGs CAPFs by rotation), the set up for the retired personnel of all paramilitary personnel. All such retirees of CAPFs are also being benefited by this MoU.

What sort of programme will they do?
They conduct lot of training programmes from where we can pick and choose. The difference between us and other forces is that, while the other forces are doing it only for their personnel, I have signed the MoU on behalf of the local population in our areas of operation. The idea is to skill the local people so that their employment potential increases and they are less vulnerable to human trafficking. After the training, they will also be given a certificate by ministry of skill development. I think this will also have a positive impact on trans-border crimes.

Finally, how many women do you have in SSB and in what roles are they deployed? Are they in the officer cadre too?
As far as the number is concerned, it is 1,388 in a nearly 76,000 strong force. In terms of percentage, it’s awfully low. MHA guidelines stipulate 10-15 per cent women in the border guarding role. It will take us quite a while to reach that figure, but the process is very much on track. In pursuant to these guidelines we are working towards setting up a Mahila battalion shortly. I would like not only their numbers to increase but also the role and responsibilities to grow in importance.

Women are deployed in BOPs and we have also included them in border interaction teams which is an experiment done by SSB at strategic places. We have a small team of men and women SSB personnel in civil clothes for frisking, vehicle checking and interception based on information. This has been a good experiment; we have got an award for that. I am also trying to make the working conditions and infrastructure more gender friendly in nature.

Would they be trained differently?
The training would remain the same. Maybe in some places, there could be an extra focus on certain aspects, but overall the raising of this battalion will not have any impact on their training.