Guest Column | Tough Times Ahead

The current pandemic has brought to the fore administrative and operational implications for border guarding forces

R.C. SharmaR.C. Sharma

The spread of Covid-19 has been a life-shattering jolt to the world and India is no exception. To contain its spread, the government of India enforced lockdown, billed as the biggest in the world. Presently, the nation is in the psychological grip of the pandemic. Border guarding forces like the Border Security Force (BSF), Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), too, have been affected. The peculiar nature of duties of border guarding forces in hostile, rugged and difficult terrain coupled with psychological instability caused by worry for family have implications which affect security of the personnel individually, and in turn affects the organisation and nation.

A recent article in a daily newspaper said that the government has decided to shut the borders. India has a vast length of land borders which remain active all through the year. To say that India has shut the border is to make light of functional difficulties and challenges of border guarding forces. The guarding of India’s border 24×7 is an activity. There is no shutting down and no break for border guards. Border management of India’s borders, especially the densely populated Indo-Pakistan and Indo-Bangladesh border, has always been a challenge and a nightmare for the border guards. Treacherous and rugged terrain, hostile weather and population, difficult living conditions and an aggressive and deceptive counterpart make border guarding challenging, dangerous and difficult.

The current pandemic has wide implications for border guarding forces. Yet, despite the difficulties, the personnel and executive leadership up to sector level are coping with the challenge efficiently and effectively. However, the higher leadership that should have been proactive in the crisis is unfortunately far away from action.

In India border guarding is manpower intensive. It involves physical domination of the international boundary day and night. This is carried out by patrolling, both on foot and vehicle, ambushes, ambush-cum-patrolling, hot interception, kisan guards and riverine domination physically by bank domination, speedboats and executive checks. To further strengthen border guarding, obstacles and technical surveillance of area of responsibility is resorted to. It again requires manpower. In short, effectiveness of border guarding is directly proportional to availability of manpower. The shutdown/ lockdown has badly affected manpower planning of border guarding forces, in addition to affecting men on duty mentally and psychologically.


Administrative and Operational Impact

The robust administrative support forms the base for effective and successful operations and border guarding. Poor administrative support due to constraints imposed by Covid-19 impacts both operations and border guarding. As a result, personnel face inconveniences, which ultimately affect operational profile of the forces; even though, they may not be visible immediately.

The lockdown has disturbed leave schedule of personnel. As a matter of policy and with the aim to provide relief to troops from very difficult and monotonous duties, which extend up to 18 hours or so, at least 25 to 30 per cent of troops are on leave at a time. Under the lockdown, the leave of personnel automatically stands extended until 3 May 2020. Until they return, fresh personnel cannot go on leave. Those back from leave have to be put in quarantine before duties are assigned. Hence, the leave schedule is disturbed by three to four months. It will have the following effects:

  • Personnel on forced leave. Exhaust credited leave. Have to be sanctioned extraordinary leave.
  • Extraordinary leave entail salary deduction; affects income and expenditure.
  • No leave in credit. Future grant of leave has to be restricted. The very purpose of ministry of home affairs (MHA) direction that personnel avail at least 100 days leave in a calendar year is defeated. Personnel may not be able to avail leave three/ four times a year.
  • Personnel retiring may suffer financial loss as extra leave availed have to be debited from accumulated leave thereby reducing their leave encashment entitlements.
  • Since personnel not able to proceed on leave as per need, social obligations are disturbed.
  • Regimental functions discontinued for maintaining social distancing; grievances redressal mechanism gets affected.
  • Personnel in outliving accommodation on duty but in lockdown. Manpower crunch at Battalion HQ and HQ campuses; duties and security compromised.
  • Cascading effect of lockdown on leave may continue for at least a year to bring it to normal levels, which affects morale.
  • Depleting confidence since social distancing not easy. Accommodation at battalion headquarters and border outposts (BOPs) is both insufficient and deplorable, hence social distancing is not possible despite best efforts. Men perform duties as buddy/ in groups. All are suspicious of each other and confidence of troops in each other depletes. This is not good for homogeneity and coordinated functioning. To restore confidence and to make for compromises on social distancing front, testing of troops be done at BOPs and battalion headquarters especially those showing symptoms. Compulsorily test those returning from leave especially from hot spots.
  • Psychological stability of men suffers from being away from family in time of pandemic. Worry for their well-being despite being in continuous touch. Hence, government should instruct director generals of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) to compile data of families of men who are on duty and work out a mechanism to be in contact with them and help them even after post-Covid-19 crisis to restore confidence of troops.
  • Both the quality and quantity of ration and essential supplies have been affected since availability in the market is restricted. This impacts both health and morale of the troops.
  • Photographs on social media indicate that commandants are distributing food to the needy, which is an honourable gesture. However, the government allocates no additional funds for this. Clearly, this is being done out of ration/ entitlement of troops. This implies compromising on the entitled calories. Government should sanction funds for such contingencies or let them be done under the civic action programmes.
  • Due to the reduced strength owing to Covid-19, the area of responsibility of the serving has increased, leading to physical and mental stress. The proposal for extra reserve battalions has been pending with the MHA for years, moving from one bureaucratic desk to another. Had this proposal been cleared, these reserve battalions could have provided strength to augment border guarding. These reserve battalions could also prove handy to government for utilisation during emergencies for law and order purpose.
  • Pending critical repairs of surveillance equipment is critically affecting border guarding. Old handheld thermal imagers (HHTI) are being used 24×7 without repair infrastructure.
  • The forthcoming harvest season demands coordination to ease burden on troops and help farmers as this could lead to spike in cases for the following reasons:
  • Large area for harvesting ahead of fencing
  • More harvesters and tractors employed
  • Frisking of farmers and checking of agricultural implements at fencing gate require for more personnel. Physical frisking demands close contact.

Probable Solutions

Higher leadership need to be proactive. Unfortunately, the higher leadership neither understands security issues nor feels the need to understand them. Leadership regimented from hierarchy is the need to appreciate emergencies both known and unknown in advance, war being one of them. In the case of CAPFs, it is the Indian police officers on deputation who are neither domain experts nor much concerned with problems of field commanders and troops since they have no accountability. Under these circumstances, the government needs to take the following steps:

  • The troops on extended leave be treated on duty so that leave in their leave account is not affected
  • All those returning from leave be tested and quarantined on arrival from leave to prevent spread of disease
  • Personnel in outliving accommodation be quarantined, tested if necessary. Start exercise immediately.
  • Higher headquarters are inert and inactive and need to play an active role by physically coordinating activities. Make frontier IGs accountable for ensuring comfort and wellbeing of troops, which is not the case at present.
  • Critical repair of equipment has never been a priority in border guarding forces. It needs to be done on a war footing and infrastructure should be created at frontier level for that. The facilities available at present are cosmetic. The centralised system followed should be decentralised for ensuring equipment stability in future emergencies, war being one of them.
  • Psychologically stabilise troops through counselling sessions to deal with psychological instabilities created by Covid-19. There was a talk of hiring counsellors when suicides, road accidents in the BSF were very high but the idea died its own death. Had counsellors been hired, they would have been of great help now and in future too.
  • Ensure troops involved in helping population have proper PPE, which is not the case at present.
  • In view of the harvesting season, a one-time decision has to be taken to stop spread of the virus and ensure fast harvesting ahead of fencing. These could include checking agricultural implements at a distance of about 100 metres from fence gate; enforcing a restriction on number of agricultural implements that can be taken ahead of fencing depending upon the manpower irrespective of the local political pressure; and dispensing with frisking at fence gates. There is no need to deploy jawans ahead of fencing. Rather, have a large strength of kisan guard to keep an eye on the area for security and to prevent smuggling. This could be made into a standard operating procedure.

Importantly, all BOP buildings must be surveyed for hygiene and sanitation infrastructure. Does the infrastructure meet basic health needs of border guards? The answer sadly is no. Hence, infrastructure improvement projects should be taken up on war footing post the pandemic.

Despite difficulties and problems, the border guards have ensured security of the borders. What’s more, they are helping local population, especially providing the labourers with food at great personal risk without proper safety kits. The administrative and operational difficulties/ shortcomings have traditionally been brushed under the carpet by the leadership. The present crisis has brought these to the forefront and need addressing, both for morale of the troops and war preparedness. The government must accord top priority to resolve the difficulties faced by the border guarding forces.

(The writer is former commandant, Border Security Force)


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