Interview | Director General, Sashastra Seema Bal, Dr S.L. Thaosen

It is Imperative to Have a Very Good Intelligence System—Trained Manpower Who Can Profile People Through Their Movements And Through The Behaviour

Dr S.L. Thaosen

The past few years have seen tensions flare-up between the otherwise two friendly neighbours—India and Nepal. While these tensions are political, how is it reflected at the shared border between these two states that the SSB is responsible for guarding?

SSB oversees guarding of open borders with Nepal and Bhutan. These borders were demarcated two centuries ago after the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816. While tensions may have arisen from time to time, this border has not seen any significant change since 1816. The only change happened when border pillars were constructed.

However, before the Kargil war, it was decided that the border would be manned and the SSB was given responsibility. Before the SSB, elements of state police used to patrol or monitor the ongoings at the border. In form of the SSB, this border gained an organized border guarding force. Unlike the Pakistan and Bangladesh border, which is fenced and has dedicated international checkpoints (ICPs) and transit routes, the Nepal border is open. For many decades now, people have been transiting to the other side.

Nepalese citizens have special status in India for employment in different sectors, which is almost at par with Indians. The challenge here is to keep the movement of people and goods as if the border is absent. Even though there have been some political tensions, it is the people-to-people relations along with other socio-cultural relations that ensured that the tensions weren’t felt strongly at least on the Indian side. The SSB has very good relations with the Armed Police Force, Nepal. The force undertakes regular meetings and interactions over phone or physically with this force. This ensures that issues at that level get resolved.


How was the situation for SSB during the 2015 blockade?

During the blockade in 2015, there was immense shortage of oil and essential commodities. At that time, the SSB did undergo pressure because the prices of basic goods were extremely high in Nepal.

In India, even an ordinary citizen wanted to make quick profit out of the crisis. Vehicles and motorcycles from India would make multiple trips to Nepal to sell petrol at a higher price. At that time, the SSB did feel pressured to keep the border in check. Now, the relations have gone back to being smooth and the border is back to being peaceful.


What challenges does the SSB face in guarding open borders with Nepal and Bhutan, where brute force is not an option? What are the peculiar challenges at Bhutan and Nepal borders that the SSB faces?

India’s borders with Bhutan and Nepal, being open, throws many challenges. Number one is that the force cannot be present at every metre along the 1,751 km border with Nepal and 699 km border with Bhutan. The expectation of people is also such that they want to go across the border and come back unhindered.

Since socio-cultural ties have been prevalent for decades and the people of Bihar and UP believe in the roti-beti ka rishta, the relationship with Nepal has a number of cultural connotations. On both sides of the border, you will find the same communities with the same religious beliefs which make the ties deeper. This, coupled with trade, ensures continuous movement of vehicles.

To segregate and identify who could be a smuggler, who could have a nefarious purpose or an intention to carry out terrorist activities here becomes difficult to gauge. Therefore, it is imperative to have a very good intelligence system—trained manpower who can profile people through their movements and through the behaviour. The force does not have the number of CCTV cameras, facial recognition systems, AI-induced equipment at the trade routes and transit points, it requires. Apart from this, there are villages where there is no proper boundary, which adds to the challenges to man the Indo-Nepal border.


The SSB has often complained of not being able to establish border outposts beyond 15km, as is mandated under the jurisdiction. Given the porous boundaries along Bihar, UP and Assam, what challenges accrue at this border?

We do have a jurisdiction of up to 15 km but even the state police have a concurrent jurisdiction. In case we have left some gap and have not established BOPs or some other patrol or naka, we work in tandem with the state police. These gaps are filled with placing nakas, patrols and through intelligence collection. We have good contact with the population at the borders. We try to win them on our side through various civic action programmes. Since the SSB has been working for a long time at these borders, the local population trusts the SSB and they do give us information in case they notice something untoward. While this may be a challenge, we do not see it as a challenge that we cannot handle.


Is the SSB undertaking development at these borders?

The border in the Tarai is one area where the population has not decreased. In fact, it has increased in some areas. But if you see the border populations in some parts of the western border, there are reports that there is migration of border population to other areas. This could also be the case in some areas of the Northeast. But along the Indo-Nepal border in states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and some parts of West Bengal, the border population has increased. The border infrastructure or connectivity is inadequate. The government of India has sanctioned thousands of kilometres of border roads. In states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and in some parts of Bihar and Bengal, border roads are coming up. There are proposals to construct border roads in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. Work at various stages is ongoing. Once the roads and telephone connectivity reach these regions, more infrastructure will come up.

As far as the SSB is concerned, we conduct civic programmes, where we train villagers on rearing good quality cows and other methods of agriculture. We also impart skill development and other awareness programmes. As we have limited resources, we partner with NGOs and state governments to improve infrastructure there. With border roads coming up along with other schemes by the government including health and skill development is improving people’s conditions and they are happy with the connectivity the most. Inter-district and district to subdivision roads under several schemes are taking place. So, I believe in the next few years, we will have a reasonably good infrastructure and people will not migrate.


Given these challenges, what technologies does the SSB need at present?

We need many technologies. Most importantly, if we have some kind of advance information of the number of people coming to India, say when they cross Nepal border and have their identity cards scanned and we, here, get an information saying that such a person of Indian origin is coming, it will help us manage the border better. Such technology is used at airports and seaports.

In Bihar, since there is prohibition of alcohol, there is an incentive for anti-social elements who smuggle liquor from other sides of the border. As I said, it being both an open and porous border, soldiers cannot be present everywhere. To prevent smuggling and other easy trades, we could make use of drones and cameras at such vulnerable border points.

We are preparing a comprehensive plan to install CCTV cameras at various phases. In the first phase, we will concentrate on the agreed routes of transit. In the second phase, we will increase the area. Initially, just at the border, maybe we will also install where roads meet and there is more movement. The use of CCTV, drones and artificial intelligence including facial recognition system would enhance our capabilities.


What efforts is the SSB taking in reaching out to the local population and the security forces of these neighbouring countries to maintain amicability?

We conduct civic action programmes. We also plan on introducing Maitree sports activities with the counterparts post monsoon. We want populations from both the sides to participate in these activities. Thereafter, we will also plan a cycling rally, where we can start from one place and both, the Nepalese citizens and state police along with India’s SSB and state police and we ride along our respective borders and then meet up at some point and participate in a programme. We also have medical units who go in case of emergencies and provide medical relief. We conduct first-aid programmes and during floods, we are the first responders. That’s how we are creating a people-friendly force.


Which Indian state(s) along this border remains the most vulnerable today? Why?

Every state bordering Nepal and Bhutan has a unique problem. In certain places have riverine border or mountains. In some places border pillars are missing, while in some places two villages are almost unseparated. However, Bihar has more challenges because we have a longer border there. It’s almost 729 kms and it is thickly populated with more number of trade and transit points. This means there is heavy flow of people and vehicles inside and outside the border. The challenge here is prohibiting the trade of liquor from Nepal to Bihar. Then there are items like fertilizers which is highly subsided in India which leads to Indians selling it in Nepal, where it is comparatively costly. Farmers also tend to sell it at exorbitant prices to gain more profits.

At Bhutan border, at many areas in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Arunachal, our BOPs are located along a dense border. Since India’s border with Bhutan is heavily forested, the insurgents have taken advantage of it in the past which is why the security forces are required to be on a constant vigil here. When insurgency was at its peak, the insurgents used reserved forests such as Manas to hide from the security forces. Once they knew that they could get caught, they transited to Bhutan and then came back to India after they gauged that the pressure from security forces had reduced. In Arunachal, due to mountainous terrains, we are not always present. We have to withdraw to lower altitudes during winters.


How differently does the SSB perceive each of these borders in terms of their nature?

Between Nepal and Bhutan, Nepal has a greater number of people coming in and going out, hence more challenges. Post Covid, Bhutan has not fully opened and has a restrictive movement of non-Bhutanese population. The challenge at Bhutan border is only that it is more mountainous. But compared to Nepal border, the challenges are definitely less.



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