Towards Smart Borders

The government should focus on enhancing effectiveness of border fence

Sanjiv Krishan SoodSanjiv Krishan Sood

Several nations around the world have built border walls, fences, or barriers to keep out illegal migrants, prevent smuggling, act as customs check points for movement of goods and persons etc. In other words, the walls and fences are used to control the borders.

These barriers have also been built where there are disputes and borders are unclear. Historically, walls were built to defend one’s territory and to identify insiders and prevent outsiders from coming in and plundering the wealth. These obstacles, like the Great Wall of China, also served the purpose of indicating the limits of power of a political entity.

Jericho in modern Palestine is known to have built a small wall as long ago as in 8,000 BC. Walls have also come up in Central America, Britain, Denmark, Somalia, Algeria and Vietnam. At the end of World War II, there were seven border walls or fences in the world. By 1989 when Berlin Wall fell, there were 15 and today, there are at least 77 walls or fences around the world.

India’s borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh are unnatural borders as no identifiable geographical feature separates the terrain and the people on either side of the boundary line. The dense habitation along these borders on either side, especially on the Indo-Bangladesh border, age-old ethnic bonds, premium on smuggling, poverty and unemployment are some of the basic factors which have promoted and sustained violations of boundary line frequently.

Although there existed a reasonable check to prevent and detect these violations, but the problem became acute with the advent of militancy in Punjab in the Eighties with Pakistan actively abetting and supporting it. Employment of only human resource became inadequate to control the problem of infiltration of militants through open borders which neutralised the successes of security forces in the interiors. It was under these circumstances that the border security fence on the lines of US-Mexico and North-South Korea border was conceived of. The fence proved to be a formidable obstacle and final blow to the militancy by severely curtailing infiltration and finances to militants.

The fence along Indo-Pakistan border in Punjab was erected by the end of Eighties. It was further strengthened with early warning systems and concertina coils and guarded by observation and fire.

Entire western border with Pakistan is fenced and floodlit. After experiencing its efficacy in the west, the Indo-Bangladesh border has also been fenced though not completely flood lit so far.

The fence was constructed at a distance of 150 yards from the International Border (IB) because Pakistan and Bangladesh objected to its construction within that distance by invoking the provisions of Ground Rules which ordained that no defence-related construction could be made within 150 yards of the IB. Resultantly, multiple problems cropped up in domination of the area ahead of the fence.

Firstly, the population within 150 yards of IB needed to be relocated. The magnitude of this problem in the west was not much but it has turned out to be a major problem on the eastern borders. The population density in states like West Bengal, Assam and Tripura being much higher than the national average, there is paucity of land to relocate them in depth areas.

Moreover, the population doesn’t want to leave their ancestral homes. Some of the villages are located right on IB with only a street separating the two countries and a common mosque. At some places the border pillar is located within the courtyard of a house. The Border Security Force (BSF) personnel cannot monitor such villages round the clock, resulting in frequent movement of persons across the border. Identity of these persons can be checked only at the fence gates, however, in view of easily available forged identity papers, it becomes difficult for the BSF to identify illegal entrants especially in view of similarity of ethnicity, language etc. This also facilitates coordination of illegal activities like smuggling etc., by trans-border criminals.

Location of fence at 150 yards and insistence of supervisory officers on ensuring zero fence breach has made the troops assume that preventing fence breach is their primary responsibility juxtaposed to ensuring sanctity of the border. Most of the border monitoring operations are thus confined to the home side of the fence, especially at night, thus practically leaving the area ahead of the fence free to exploitation by criminals and smugglers. The farmers working in their fields ahead of the fence and those living in the villages along zero line also feel unsafe in the absence of any protection. This also prevents proper familiarisation of the area along the IB and its exact alignment, thus increasing chances of encroachment by Bangladeshi/Pakistani farmers. In fact, proper study of Strip Maps (Cadastral Maps of border area) has led to the recovery of land encroached upon by Bangladeshis.

The mind-set of troops and commanders, therefore, has to change from ‘fence is to be protected’ to ‘sanctity of the international boundary is to be ensured’. This is possible only through more effective domination of area ahead of the fence, both during day and night. Presence of patrols during the day will inculcate confidence amongst villagers residing ahead of the fence or cultivating their fields. Domination of area at night will also prevent criminals from entering the Indian territory and concealing contraband to be cleared later by their accomplices.

The authorities can also consider deployment of drones for surveillance of the area beyond the fence during the day as it makes it easier to cover large areas, which is not possible through manual monitoring.

The fence has also imposed restrictions on normal farming activities like limited work hours and movement through designated gates only. This also requires people to make themselves and their implements available for search by the sentries at the gates. This at times causes resentment against the BSF. Troops, therefore, need to empathise with the villagers and for this they need to be trained in soft skills. Another issue that the BSF, then comprising only men, faced earlier was carrying out checks on women. They had to take help from local women, which was not always a fool-proof method. But with the induction of women into the BSF, this problem has been resolved to a large extent.

There is a lot of scope for use of technology at the fence gates. Using biometric fingerprint identification systems will reduce the delays caused at the gates. This will also prevent illegal migrants and people with forged identity papers from entering India.

Almost one-fourth of the Indo-Bangladesh border is riverine, making it tough to constructing a fence. And in turn, this challenge is exploited by intruders. Complicated land acquisition procedures and paucity of land also adds to the problem. The BSF, therefore, has to come up with sound border guarding practices to prevent exploitation of these unfenced stretches. This can be done through installation of surveillance devices and appropriately placing troops of the BSF water wing for intercepting the criminals after detection.

Trials for Comprehensive Border Management System, which attempts to integrate various surveillance devices for optimum results, are being carried out in the riverine stretch in Assam and also on the selected patches in the west. However, most of these imported devices impose a heavy cost on installation and thereafter for maintenance. What we must look for are the indigenously developed devices which suit our requirement.

BSF guarding Indo-Bangla border

An obstacle must be dominated by observation and fire for which deployment of manpower is essential. This is applicable for the border fence too. The fence has to be thus monitored through physical deployment of troops. Resultantly, there has been no reduction in the requirement of manpower.

Change of domination pattern to QRT based operation is, therefore, essential in order to reduce mental and physical stress of troops. This will necessitate heavy investment in surveillance devices which should be connected to a monitoring system centrally placed on a border outpost (BOP). Troops can be activated to react at short notice as soon as a suspicious movement is noticed. This will also entail construction of a road adjacent to the fence for QRTs to move. While such tracks have been made along the fence on Indo-Bangladesh border and Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan and Gujarat, they are required to be made along the Indo–Pak border in Punjab.

The fencing is prone to being breached and exploited by criminals. The organisation, therefore, needs to come up with a design of a fence which is difficult to breach. Obstacle value of the fence should also be augmented with help of subsidiary obstacles and early warning devices that will convert it into a smart fence.

The fence along the borders both in the west and east has been floodlit. However, at many places along Indo-Bangladesh border regular supply of electricity has not started. Frequent power cuts also lead to extensive use of generators which have been provided at all border outposts (BOPs). This causes a lot of environmental and noise pollution besides being less cost effective. This problem can be overcome by creating a grid of solar panel-based power plants. This will be a source of clean energy besides saving a lot of expenditure.

The patrols and ambushes of the BSF can easily be observed in the scattered light of the floodlights. Criminals have mastered the technique of coordinating their activities to with the movement of the BSF patrols. This can be overcome by using sensors to switch on the floodlights upon detection of any movement in a particular area. The floodlights switched of in a normal course would add a surprise element besides cutting costs. This is an idea which needs to be pursued both by the BSF and the industry.

It is beyond doubt that the fence has in a way revolutionised border guarding along Indo-Pak and Indo-Bangladesh borders and controlled infiltration to a large extent. However, there always is scope for improvement and technological interventions as suggested above.

(The writer retired as additional director general, Border Security Force)


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