Gaping Holes

Effective border guarding is essential to stop illegal immigration from Bangladesh

Sanjiv Krishan SoodSanjiv Krishan Sood

It was a foggy winter morning. At about 3 a.m., an alert Border Security Force (BSF) patrol guarding the Indo-Bangladesh border somewhere in Bengal heard some noises coming from the end of the border fence. The voices seemed to be moving towards them.

The patrol lay in wait and challenged them when they came closer. The voices soon turned into desperate cries for mercy. On closer look, it was revealed that the voices belonged to a Bangladeshi family headed home for Eid. They said that they had come to India a couple of years ago by paying a bribe to a tout who brought them close to the border and directed them to a gap in the fence to cross over. They further disclosed that before crossing the border they were in possession of Indian identity documents.

Working as domestic help and daily wage earners somewhere in North India, they were brought to the border by the police after they were rounded up. They would have, in any case, returned after a couple of months using the similar method. Interestingly, they revealed that whenever they wanted to return to Bangladesh, they would go to the police. This helped them to return without having to pay for their fare.

Recently, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) president, Amit Shah, referred to such illegal immigrants as ‘termites’. Irrespective of his intentions, it has to be accepted that illegal immigration of Bangladeshis is a problem that needs to be seriously addressed.

Thousands of Bangladeshi nationals have migrated illegally and settled in various parts of India. Different estimates put the figures of these illegal settlers between 15 to 20 million. These illegal settlers are generally from lower strata of society and have almost monopolised the low-end informal employment market of domestic helps and daily wage earners in cities and towns.

Several factors like population pressure, lack of employment opportunities and inundation of almost one-third of land during monsoon, forces Bangladeshis to come to India in search of livelihood. And what makes it easier for them to immigrate is India’s inability to prevent them from coming – a poor reflection on the standards of border guarding arrangements. Easy availability of identity papers further makes it difficult to detect and deport them.

The priority accorded to Indo–Bangladesh borders by the government has always been low compared to western borders. This is because of the influx of terrorists from Pakistan to foment militancy in Punjab and Kashmir. As such allocation of resources, troops and modernisation of border guarding systems on Indo-Bangladesh borders have been comparatively much less.

Serious implications of illegal migration were realised only after Assam agitation in the mid-Eighties which lead to some improvement in border guarding efforts. The fence started coming up only towards the end of the Nineties – a full decade after the Indo-Pak border. With one-fourth of the 4,096 km border being riverine, it further compounds the problem. The Border Security Force (BSF) has been unable to devise a cohesive strategy to guard these riverine stretches which are exploited with impunity by illegal immigrants.

The pace of construction of the fence has been tardy with one-sixth of the sanctioned length yet to be completed; acquisition of land – a scarce resource especially in Bengal – being the main reason. The fence also deteriorates faster due to weather conditions prevailing in the East but the replacement is not as prompt. A large portion of even the existing fence is ineffective and easily exploited.

Women BSF troopers check workers at Indo-Bangladesh border

For the fence to be an effective barrier, it needs to be floodlit. But about one-sixth of the sanctioned floodlighting is not yet installed. A large portion which is installed is yet to be energised.

Border guarding methodology also remains archaic and manpower intensive. Induction of technology to assist troops has been very little. The first- and second-generation Night Vision Devices (NVDs), which even otherwise are not user-friendly, have outlived their life besides being cumbersome to carry. The organisation also has not invested in familiarising the troops with their usage. These devices, therefore, either remain safely confined to stores or copiously kept in their covers even if taken out for duties. Some thermal imagers have been inducted but they are too few. Besides, proper facilities do not exist on the border outposts (BOPs) to put them to use effectively. Some laudable individual efforts have not received the kind of encouragement that they deserve. Annual competition to encourage innovativeness remains just an event and none of the projects have been taken up for large-scale production to ease the burden on troops.

Most of the technology introduced being vendor driven is not user-friendly. The humid and rainy conditions existing along these borders also degrade their efficiency.

The border ab-initio is typically difficult to manage with population residing right up-to the zero line in many areas. For example, the entire town of Hilly in Malda district is located on both sides of the International Border (IB) with doors and windows of houses opening into Bangladesh, Such places are difficult to guard and are amenable to infiltration even during daytime.

Notwithstanding the fact that the fence has facilitated better border guarding, it has also given rise to a major psychological barrier and defensive mindset. The leaders of the force being chary of any breach in the fence have created a mindset amongst the troops and operational commanders that they consider it more important to guard the fence against any breach, restricting the patrolling by troops, especially at night, adjacent to the fence on homeside. The villages located on far side of the fence thus remain unpatrolled and provide launching base to the illegal immigrants. They take shelter in these villages and are guided to cross over through the gaps when the patrol along the fence is on the other end of the area of responsibility.

A similar situation prevails even during the day, with troops reluctant to go across for fear of being lynched by criminal mobs. Criminals are secure in the knowledge of restrictions imposed on troops on opening fire are further emboldened. It is no one’s case that troops should become trigger happy. However, they should have the confidence to use appropriate force if required. Commanders on ground must have functional autonomy.

Impractical orders imposing restrictions on the use of force emanate from a leadership which is unaware of ground realities and thus unsure and insecure. Fearful of repercussions, they are hesitant to give operational autonomy to the troops and commanders in the field. This has led the troops to become defensive as manifested in increased causalities amongst troops.

Another factor facilitating illegal immigrants is connivance. Fact that many illegal migrants are in possession of valid Indian identity papers bears testimony to this. The border guard standing at the fence gate has no means to verify the authenticity of the identity papers. Hence, the government must take steps to ensure that the black sheep are identified and proceeded against. The BSF should also pitch for facilities to verify the correctness of identity documents at appropriately located BOPs.

I can authoritatively state that most troops and commanders of the BSF are honest. Stringent punishment provisions further discourage them from straying from the correct path. Yet, a few succumb to lure of easy money and connive with touts. In a recent case, an officer was caught with a huge amount of ill-gotten money. CBI investigations are under progress in the case. The vigilance and intelligence staff need to focus on identifying such undesirable activities.

Another factor leading to gaps in border guarding is repeated withdrawal of troops for elections and other internal security duties. This is a serious compromise with national security and the government needs to take a serious look into this and stop repeated thinning out of troops from borders.

Illegal immigration from Bangladesh is a major security hazard as they are vulnerable to recruitment by anti-national organisations besides being a burden on our resources.

Effective border guarding is extremely important to curb illegal migration from Bangladesh. The BSF, as well as the government, need to devise a cohesive strategy for proper border guarding. The measures should include ensuring the availability of necessary resources. Modernisation of border guarding systems including capacity building of troops and exercising proper vigilance over them to curb connivance is also extremely important. An adequate number of troops must be continuously deployed and repeated thinning out should be avoided. Finally, closer co-operation with Bangladesh authorities, especially the Bangladesh Border Guards will also go a long way in controlling the malaise.

(The writer is a former additional director general of Border Security Force)


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