Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has urged the 15th Finance Commission to strengthen security on Assam’s international borders. His concern is understandable given that trans-border migration has changed Assam’s demographic profile, and had triggered the AASU-led agitation against foreigners that was a watershed in the state’s history. More recently, neighbouring countries were used as bases by militant outfits who wreaked havoc till friendly governments denied such sanctuary.
More than 30% of India’s 15,000 km land frontiers are in the NER, though it is only 8% of the country’s area. In exploring options to strengthen border security, a review of the present border management architecture is necessary. Assam itself has a relatively small border with Bangladesh and a longer one with Bhutan. Among the NE States, Tripura and Meghalaya share extended borders with Bangladesh, Arunachal Pradesh with Tibet (China), Manipur, Arunachal and Mizoram with Myanmar, Sikkim with Nepal, which is also close to BTAD in Assam. The terrain and habitation along these frontiers varies; from sparsely populated snow-capped mountains on the Sino-Indian border to lush jungles along Indo-Myanmar border, and shifting rivers on the thickly peopled Indo-Bangladesh frontier that is often cultivated up to the zero-line. In addition to legitimate trade and movement of people; arms, narcotics, wildlife body parts and militants are among the dark traffic via the Indo-Myanmar border that has a limited ‘free- movement regime’-in place for border populations. On the Bangladesh border, cattle-smuggling and illegal movement of people (including trafficking) and goods are the primary concern. Bhutan and Nepal are traditional allies and have an open border with India, with no travel documents needed for movement of people from either side.
The current policy of ‘one force, one border’ has allocated ITBP for the Sino-Indian border, BSF for Bangladesh, SSB for Bhutan and Nepal, and Assam Rifles for the IMB. Assam Rifles has its Force HQ at Shillong; HQ of the other BGFs are in New Delhi, with Frontier HQs in NER. Deployment along international borders in the NER is a significant proportion of the total BGF strength of almost 500,000 personnel.
The pillar of current border guarding doctrine is the Border Out-Post (BOP), except along the IMB manned by Assam Rifles that follows a deployment strategy geared to defence not presence. The BOP is intended as a visible deterrent and a base for patrolling a given ‘area-of responsibility’. In addition to massive deployment, Government of India has invested thousands of crores in border fencing (erected 150 metres behind the zero-line), border lighting along the Indo-Bangladesh border, and border roads in this and other IBs. Apart from capital expenditure, recurring operational/maintenance expenditure on this infrastructure is high.
In the current approach to border security, states have a limited role. There is an allocation under the BADP scheme 90 % funded by the Centre, currently for villages within 10 kms of the border. This is implemented mainly by the states in consultation with the Centre. Border Home Guards raised and managed by the states but whose costs are reimbursed 100% by the Centre, assist the BSF along the Indo- Bangladesh border with Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura.
The question is, can greater engagement by states in border management achieve the desired objective of better security and at lower cost? We need to keep in mind that except for the frontier with China none of the borders are militarized. Would it therefore make operational and economic sense to look for ways to make states more involved with border management, with the Centre taking more of a strategic, funding, training and coordinating/monitoring role?
The border with Tibet (China) has heavy army deployment along the LAC. Here the need is for close synergy between the army and ITBP. On this border and also that with Myanmar, ‘Scouts’ units of locals deployed with the BGF could be a force multiplier and reduce the scale of regular BGF units required. Perhaps the army has already raised Arunachal Scouts units. This may also be less expensive since the scale of manpower, equipment and weapons holding would be less than needed for conventional BGFs; the unique competence of these auxiliaries would be their familiarity with the terrain and local networks.
Does the Bangladesh frontier need civil policing to be strengthened and the structure for trade/movement of people to be streamlined, even if only as part of a systemic overhaul critical for a successful “Act East” policy? Do further increases in armed presence through even more BOPs of BGFs need urgent review using a rigorous cost-benefit analysis? We’ve never had a friendlier regime than the present government in Bangladesh. Is now the time to look at evolving a more liberal framework for legitimate movement of people and goods? At the same time, the Centre could consider supporting the strengthening of border police stations of the state so as to effectively deal with trans-border crime and criminals. This will provide down-stream linkages to police-stations across the country, even in the railways and beyond the immediate border. Closer coordination with civil police of Bangladesh rather than just the BGFs of both countries should be encouraged through regular coordination meetings, common data-bases and direct communication channels.
With militancy having dropped to low levels, can the possibility be examined of complete armed police units in states like Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya being inducted for a fixed tenure deputation into the BSF? Instead of being restricted to only a reactive role, these units can be upgraded with skills like those with the Special IR battalions raised for Maoist-affected areas to enable them to undertake development work that will win the support of locals. BADP is presently a small component of total expenditure on border management. The NER gets about 40 % of the Rs 1000 crores allocated annually all-India. Increasing this for expenditures in areas like health, education and skill development instead of mainly physical infrastructure would make a real difference to quality of life of the border populations. A regular and systematic review is needed as to whether such expenditure meets local needs, and are not ‘top-down’ decisions.
In the open borders Bhutan and Nepal too, the primary role of the BGF could be to work with the local population to build up intelligence and public support, rather than project a show of strength or target petty smuggling. Perhaps revival of capabilities in the Seema Suraksha Bal (SSB) that it’s had in its earlier incarnation as Special Services Bureau could help toward this objective. Building up community engagement in these ‘open borders’ may pay greater dividends than ‘area domination’.
To sum up, a differential approach may be necessary for the different IBs in the region subject to assessing local conditions and threats to national security. The BOP as the ubiquitous foundation of border security needs to be reviewed as also efficacy of physical barriers that are expensive to build and maintain. Heavily armed and high-cost armed forces of the Union should not have to play the role of ‘customs inspectors’, hence the doctrine and mission for each BGF needs to be carefully reviewed. States should play a greater role in border management; the unending expansion of BGFs needs to be reconsidered.