The mental and emotional health of the personnel need immediate attention
The Border Security Force (BSF) suffered severe setbacks in the shape of two tragedies in the first week of March. The largest border guarding force of the world lost seven precious lives in two separate incidents of fratricide on two consecutive days on 5 and 6 March.
In the first incident at Amritsar along western borders, a jawan opened indiscriminate fire on his colleagues before shooting himself. Five jawans including the shooter lost their lives whereas one is still recovering from serious injuries suffered during the shoot-out. While a court of inquiry will examine the reasons for the incident, it is said that the perpetrator, besides being overburdened by duties, was under a lot of debt. Reportedly, he was under psychiatric treatment—a fact which he had hidden from his superiors.
The second incident on March 6 at Behrampur in West Bengal along India-Bangladesh border was personally painful for me because the victim of fratricide had joined that unit as a promising young combatant when I was commanding it in the late Nineties. Reportedly, an altercation between aggressor and the victim about an incident that occurred when they were deployed together for an operation for which both were facing proceedings in a civil court, lead to the unfortunate loss of life of both.
While immediate provocation for these incidents is a matter of inquiry, the pent-up frustration and stress amongst troops is a major cause of such tragic incidents. The stark reality of stress and frustration amongst troops and commanders is apparent from the data of such incidents and rate of attrition in the Central Armed Forces (CAF).
The CAF have witnessed 25 incidents of fratricide in a period of three years from 2019-21 in addition to the above two incidents of March. Besides fratricide, the government informed Lok Sabha in 2020 through a written reply that 128 CAF personnel had committed suicide in 2019 compared to 96 in 2018 and 121 in 2017. Besides the above, the high rate of Voluntary retirements and resignation by the personnel of these forces is indicative of high stress and low satisfaction level amongst troops with the working conditions in these forces. Almost 47 thousand personnel of these forces have proceeded on voluntary retirement or resigned from service in a period of four years from 2016 to 2020 as per reply of Union home ministry in response to a Parliament question in 2021. This is over five per cent of the total strength of these forces over and above the normal three per cent wastage every year. Such high rate of attrition, in-spite of inherent job security and prevailing heavy unemployment rate is a cause of concern and underlines the need for identifying the causes and initiate remedial measures.
The first step in addressing the issue of stress amongst troops and commanders is to accept the fact that it exists. However, the standard response of officials to queries reveals an attitude of denial. The most common reasons attributed for high rate of attrition and tragic incidents of fratricide and suicides etc., are ‘personal’. This is far away from actual facts. More important are the reasons relating to working conditions in these forces which are less than satisfactory. The problems leading to high stress that troops in these forces face can be categorised as operational, administrative and personal.
The most important reason for high stress amongst troops relates to long hours of duty and lack of rest and relief. The duty hours are generally more than 12 hours at staggered times during the day. Regularity of rest, relief and sleep pattern for the troops especially, in the border guarding forces is totally absent. The troops generally have to be deployed in several shifts of different duration during day and night thus depriving them of continuous sleep adding to the stress, besides triggering several adverse medical conditions. This coupled with the fact that the forces have not been able to integrate technology into the system to the extent desired and zero error syndrome puts the troops and the cutting-edge level commanders under a lot of mental pressure.
Further, in-spite of these forces now being fairly old, adequate infrastructure still does not exist on the posts thus further adding to the woes of troops. For example, even though the last expansion of BSF was in mid-Nineties followed by addition of one more company to each battalion in early 2000, there is large deficiency of sanctioned infrastructure at posts. Most critical deficiencies pertain to living barracks for jawans, subordinate officers and women constables besides toilets, cook houses and dining halls etc. The troops justifiably expect proper facilities for rest and relief, absence of which is an important cause of physical and mental discomfort, stress and dissatisfaction leading to serious incidents and attrition. Large infrastructural deficiency exists even at Battalion Headquarters, because the existing locations have now to be shared by additional units raised.
The status of accommodation for troops deployed for internal security duties and anti-insurgency operations is bad because these locations being considered temporary, there is hardly any permanent infrastructure created in these areas.
The scale of accommodation authorised for other ranks of these forces is only about 14 per cent. Besides this, adequate educational facilities, especially for high education, do not exist at remote locations where they may be posted. Thus, most of them have to manage two or more establishments leading to financial stress. The government has sanctioned house rent allowance to the other ranks as compensation for separation from families to enable the troops to keep their families anywhere in India. This step has to an extent addressed the concern of troops for education of children. However, ironically this facility has not been extended to officers.
Irrespective of the compensation being granted, the troops have to cope with long periods of separation from families. In these times when everyone carries a mobile phone, even minor family issues get communicated within no time and add to the already high stress level caused by adverse operational conditions as discussed above. Another dimension has been added with troops being exposed to large volume of information available on the internet. They are well aware of the facilities available to Defence forces and the Police and also the civilians. Such comparisons add to the dissatisfaction because in-spite of being ‘armed forces’ the personnel are treated as civilians and get much less pay and allowances than their defence forces counterparts even though types of duties performed by them put them at much greater risk 24/7. There is vast difference in what CAF troops get paid vis-à-vis a defence force personnel even where they are deployed at the same place or post and perform similar duties as on the Line of Control (LC) in J&K or on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) along Indo-Tibetan Border. The fact that the troops which have joined after 1 January 2004 are not eligible for pension also is a factor that is cause of dissatisfaction and reportedly courts have been approached to allow pension as the legal status of these forces is that of armed forces.
The duty hours which are already high get further extended to as much as 15-16 hours in a day due to frequent withdrawal of large number of troops for tasks other than the core functions. An example is the frequent withdrawal of Border Guarding Forces for prolonged periods for duties related to elections and other internal security duties. The elections to state assemblies in 2021 and 2022 are examples when almost 1/3rd strength of these forces were withdrawn from eastern borders and deployed away for almost three months each, leading to extra burden on remaining troops. Such massive thinning out of troops not only extends the duty hours but also the area that the remaining troops have to keep under surveillance. One can understand the compulsion of government to utilise these forces for essential duties like elections. What, however, adds to the woes of troops is their simultaneous commitment for non-essential activities. For example, the concurrent celebration of events related to 50th year of independence of Bangladesh during the elections in 2021 further added to the woes of troops. These events continued for almost the entire duration of the elections leading to further thinning out from borders. Therefore, perhaps not more than 50 per cent of the troops were effectively available for actual duties. This apart from the stress and mental pressure that it causes to the troops is also a serious compromise with the security of borders and thus national security.
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