Guest Column | Reform and Revive

The BSF may lose its edge if policymakers don’t address the problems plaguing it

Sanjiv Krishan SoodSanjiv Krishan Sood

The borders of India with Pakistan and Bangladesh are dynamic places. The Border Security Force (BSF), the largest border guarding force of the world, is entrusted with the responsibility of guarding borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Thus, the force has a vital role in ensuring security and integrity of nation.

Policymakers over 53 years ago had conceived of a force capable of guarding borders during peace and assist the army as first line of defence during hostilities because of inability of disparate state armed forces to stand up to even minor threats from Pakistan forces and lack of uniformity in dealing with counterpart.

Operational philosophy, organisation and training of the force was, therefore, militaristic and the force had acquitted extremely well during the 1971 war. The force is now standing at a crossroads and faces myriad of issues which need urgent attention of planners.

The security environment, both internal and external prevailing now, is vastly different from 1965. Proxy war by Pakistan has kept our western borders troubled, requiring aggressive border guarding infrastructure and border management practices.

Bangladesh border grapples with threat of different kind with armed cattle smugglers attacking BSF soldiers when intercepted. Heavy population density, lack of development and employment opportunities makes these borders highly crime prone. The BSF is, thus, faced with policy dilemma of averting use of force to conform to national objective of maintaining good relations with Bangladesh and ensuring safety and security of soldiers while preventing crime.

The comprehensive border management plan signed between the DG BSF and DG Bangladesh Border Guards in 2011 is a step in the direction to reduce violence along border with Bangladesh. However, the directive clamping down totally on use of firearms by troops is impractical and problematic. This has emboldened the cattle smugglers and other border criminals. Secure in knowledge of the directive they do not hesitate in attacking the troops deployed in small groups for patrolling. This is manifested in the increased injuries to troops. The commanders on spot must, therefore, be delegated with adequate autonomy for decision making in operational situations.

Construction of a fence at a distance of 150 yards from borders in conformity with border guidelines has resulted in a defensive mindset and the area ahead of fence mostly remains unpatrolled. This mindset needs to change and Indian sovereignty asserted through regular patrolling. This will go a long way in inculcating a sense of confidence amongst villagers and farmers staying (in the East and North East) and working across the fence. This will also prevent criminals from coming close to fence to commit crimes.

Change in security environment and emphasis on comprehensive border management rather than simple border guarding necessitates modification of strategies employed by the BSF.

Manpower intensive border guarding practices are no longer adequate, and so, suitable technology has to be introduced to assist the border guards. Technological interventions in the shape of first-and-second-generation Night Vision Devices (NVDs) or Hand Held Thermal Imagers (HHTIs) have had rather limited benefit, and as such the situation on the ground remains unchanged. Besides having outlived their life, these devices are cumbersome and not user friendly. The organisation also has not invested in familiarising troops with their usage which is another reason for reluctance on part of troops to use them.

Technology sought to be introduced is generally vendor driven which more often than not fails in conditions prevailing on the ground or is outdated. For example, there is no rationale for procuring GPS for border guarding operations when the facility for finding location is available in the smartphones being commonly used by troops?

It is, therefore, necessary that trials be carried out over an extended period in operational conditions before induction of a new equipment. Aspects of training in use and maintenance of devices must also be built in the contract to prevent long turn-over time for repairs. Proper facilities should be created at BOPs to derive optimum advantage from devices like Thermal Imagers.

Like all hierarchal uniformed organisations innovative ideas are rarely encouraged and some laudable individual efforts have not received the 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.

The mindset of the commanders, therefore, requires a generational change as the constabulary now is educated and well informed. Only a smart border man will be capable of adopting ‘Smart Border Management’ practices and, therefore, they should be encouraged to come up with innovative ideas besides imparting them adequate training in use of technical gadgets introduced in the force.

BSF checking a person at the Bangladesh border

The BSF also needs to take a fresh look at its arming policy. There is a tendency to vie for more weapons without analysing the utility of existing authorisation for the role required to be performed. For example, the BSF has few artillery regiments located at different places. In my view it can be dispensed with and manpower released for redeployment. Naïve argument advanced in support of retaining it is that the inherent artillery support is essential during war as the support from the army will not be available to the BSF. This emanates from total lack of understanding about how war effort takes place. When placed under the army operational control, the BSF will be integrated in deployment and the artillery support by the army will be over the entire front without any distinction of the army or the BSF. Moreover, the artillery assets of the BSF will be pooled and operate under orders of Army Commanders. Similarly, the BSF doesn’t need Rocket and Grenade Launchers other than when deployed for counter insurgency operations or war. Therefore, instead of authorising these to each unit, a central pool of these weapons can be created at appropriate level and the units being inducted can be trained in their usage before induction.

The training philosophy also needs to orient to present day operational environment. While western borders need aggressive domination and ‘Ek Goli ek dushman’ type of training is still relevant, the eastern borders require troops to exercise restraint. This must, therefore, be incorporated in the basic training and pre-induction training before deployment in those areas.

The operational environment on borders after construction of fence requires troops to be trained in soft skills as they have to interact with farmers on a regular basis. Soft skills training also should be incorporated in the curriculum at different levels.

Frequent deployment in counter insurgency operations also necessitates incorporation of relevant aspects in training at different stages.

Border guarding is rapidly transforming into integrated border management where several agencies are equal stakeholders. Borders in near future are expected to transform from ‘barriers’ to ‘bridges’ between nations. A smart border man has to be aware of the developing scenario and understand the functioning of different agencies involved with the functioning of Integrated Check Posts and Land Custom Stations to facilitate hassle free movement of personnel and goods across the borders.

Strength of the force has grown from mere 25,000 in 1965 to about 2.5 lakhs now. This tenfold growth has not been uniform causing severe personnel management dilemma that the force is faced with.

Irregular expansion of the force has resulted in alternate overload and underutilisation of the training capacity, leading to dilution of training standards as the overload results into adverse trainer – trainee ratio with negative implications on operational efficiency. It also has thrown up inexperienced leaders even while it ensured comparative rapid elevation for individuals. However, one-time benefit of such rapid expansion has reached saturation point and personnel are now stagnating for long periods resulting in dissatisfaction and demoralisation.

A jawan now takes anything from 20 to 24 years to earn first promotion. The situation has reached this stage because the policy makers in their wisdom wanted to bring parity with the police and abolished the ranks of Lance/Naik and Naik, thus disturbing the command structure of ‘Section’, the basic group in a Unit. Similarly, introduction of the rank of Assistant Sub Inspector has disturbed the structure of ‘Platoon’.

Efforts to address the problem of stagnation have lacked vision and amounted only to fire fighting. Creation of posts of Head Constables and Sub Inspectors at training institutions and static headquarters has not alleviated the problem as there are very few such stations.

Stagnation amongst cadre officers of the force has always been acute with most of them retiring at middle rungs. Very few are able to reach supervisory levels because most of the positions at that level are occupied by IPS officers on deputation. Thus, the organisation is deprived of the benefit of rich experience of cadre officers at supervisory and policy making levels. The neglect of the career aspirations of officers is apparent from the fact that for three decades no cadre review was carried out. The cadre review exercise for officers done a couple of years ago has not brought long-term solutions, resulting simply in one-time postponement of stagnation through proliferation of ranks. Avenues created at higher levels have been usurped by IPS officers because of the rule that reserves higher level posts for them.

In terms of pay and allowances a BSF person is faced with double jeopardy. He is treated as a civilian employee and his salary, allowances and post-retirement benefits are regulated in accordance with civil rules. But unlike civil employees, he retires at the age of 57 years, thus losing the benefit of three years of service and consequent pensionary benefits compared to civilians. He frequently encounters life threatening situations while deployed along Line of Control (LC) under the army operational control or in anti-terrorist/insurgent operations but is not entitled to pension unlike his counterpart in defence forces. Large numbers of the BSF units are deployed on the LC and perform same duties that an army person performs. Yet, the BSF person gets almost 25 per cent less than the army counterpart even while deployed on the same FDL. Further, in case of an unfortunate death in line of duty, the family of a deceased BSF soldier is deprived of many benefits available to the family of an army jawan because there is no provision for a BSF soldier to be declared a martyr.

BSF personnel spend most of their life on BOPs where the extended duty hours – sometimes 16 per day – enable only interrupted sleep. To make matters worse the living conditions at most of the BOPs are unsatisfactory. A recent report had brought out that of the 66 BOPs in Barmer Sector of the BSF only two had facilities for piped drinking water. The rest depended upon water tanker. Condition is further accentuated by rapid expansion thus over burdening the existing infrastructure. The above conditions coupled with the inability to meet urgent family obligations cause lot of stress resulting in high rate of attrition. As per a reply to a Parliament question, 12096 persons have either resigned or proceeded on voluntary retirement from 2015 to 2018. Besides this 121 BSF personnel have committed suicide in four years from 2015 to 2018.

Most of the problems emanate from lack of connect of the policy level leadership with conditions on ground. Trained in policing, law and order duties, they find themselves out of depth with the complexities and dynamics of border management, ethos and operational philosophy of a large organisation like the BSF. That is the reason for several erratic and impractical decisions taken by them. Few examples would be necessary to quote.

The IPS leadership considers the BSF to be like police. They have no concept of regimentation and benefits of keeping identity of Unit intact in an armed force. Hence, they got ministry of home affairs (MHA) to approve rotation of one-third strength of a unit every year. Thanks to efforts of veterans from cadre the order was rescinded by the MHA; otherwise the cohesion, bonding and intimate knowledge of the capabilities of troops that regimentation facilitates would have been the causality leading to degradation of operational capability.

Another impractical order is the total ban imposed on use of fire against border criminals along Bangladesh borders. Consequently, criminals are emboldened leading to higher injuries to troops. Troops on ground must have operational autonomy to assess a situation and respond accordingly.

In early 2000, a decision was taken to add an additional company to a BSF unit. This has resulted in almost 20 per cent increase in work load – both operational and administrative of a Unit Commandant. Resultantly, the levels of supervision have diluted, thus reflected in increased cases of indiscipline etc.

A measure aimed at placating troops by allowing senior constables with over 10 years of service to put an inverse strip on arm invited lot of derision even from constabulary as it neither meant any financial up-gradation nor any change in duties to be performed.

After over 53 years of existence the BSF finds itself at a crossroads. It has to adapt to rapidly changing environment on the borders. The border man can become a smart border man only through modern personnel management policies. The leadership which has risen from its own ranks and has proper understanding of the requirements of organisation will only be able to ensure that. The government has to give a serious thought and rectify the anomalous situation by handing over the baton to cadre officers who over the years have acquired enough experience and maturity to take up the reign of the force.

The BSF as an important player in the security matrix of the country is in need of urgent reforms failing which there is imminent threat of the force losing its edge.

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


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