The Border Security Force, the world’s largest border guarding force, finds itself at the crossroads on its 54th Raising Day. When it was established on December 1, 1965, policy makers conceived a force capable of guarding the country’s borders during peace time and assisting the Army during hostilities. Its operational philosophy, organisation and training was, therefore, militaristic.

After 53 years, the Border Security Force is facing a myriad challenges, ranging from reassessment of operational philosophy and a personnel management dilemma to an acute disconnect of the leadership with ground realities.

The situation on the borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh differs vastly from the one that prevailed in 1965. While Pakistan is a hostile neighbour, Bangladesh – East Pakistan as it was then – is a friendly country.

A proxy war by Pakistan has kept the western borders alive, necessitating militaristic border guarding structures and border management practices. Troops face life-threatening situations daily on account of militant threat and high stakes drug smuggling. “Shoot to kill” and “Ek goli ek dushman” (one bullet, one enemy) are the prevalent philosophy on these borders, particularly at night. The fencing constructed in the 1990s has, however, created a defensive mindset among troops and a 150-yard area across the fence remains generally unpatrolled, especially at night. This needs to change, with an assertion of sovereignty through physical domination.

As for the Bangladesh border, high population density and lack of development and employment opportunities make it prone to crime. The Border Security Force faces the policy dilemma of avoiding the use of force in conformity with the national objective of maintaining good relations with Bangladesh and ensuring the safety and security of soldiers while also preventing crime. Troops operate with their hands tied as a ban has been imposed on the use of firearms. This has emboldened criminals, as seen in the growing attacks on troops. The soldiers are also expected to stop cattle that have travelled unintercepted through the breadth of North India from crossing over into Bangladesh. Such impractical orders emanate from a leadership disconnected from ground realities. This must be reviewed and functional autonomy restored to the troops.

Smart border man

An important factor for efficient functioning of the force relates to leadership. It is high time the reins of the force are handed over to cadre officers who are connected with ground realities and well-versed in the ethos of the force. The Indian Police Service leadership is completely out of depth in comprehending the complexities of managing a specialised unit like the Border Security Force. Trained in policing and law and order, they have no comprehension of the dynamics of border management. Being transient, they do not connect with the psyche of troops and are unable to comprehend their requirements. They are content with simply marking their time.

The challenges are also visible down the line. Since 1965, the strength of the force has grown from a mere 25,000 to about 2.5 lakh. But this ten-fold growth has not been uniform, causing severe personnel management dilemma. Such sporadic expansion has caused acute stagnation. It now takes anywhere between 20 years and 24 years for a jawan to earn his first promotion. A chunk of the blame for this state of affairs lies with faulty policy decisions such as the abolition of ranks like naik and lance naik and the introduction of ineffectual ranks like assistant sub-inspector.

Stagnation among cadre officers is even more acute. Most officers retire much before their rich experience can be garnered at policy-making levels. A cadre review was undertaken after close to three decades in 2016, but it only managed to postpone the stagnation by a few years without finding any long-term solutions. Moreover, the higher-level posts created as a result of this cadre review were made available only to Indian Police Service officers who are on deputation.

Border Security Force personnel face double jeopardy in terms of pay and allowances. Treated as civilian employees, their salaries, allowances and post-retirement benefits are regulated by civil rules. However, unlike civil employees, they lose out on three years of service and pension benefits as they retire at the age of 57. They frequently encounter life-threatening situations but are not entitled to pension, unlike their counterparts in the defence forces. Large numbers of Border Security Force units are deployed on the Line of Control performing the same duties as Army personnel, yet they earn almost 25% less than their counterparts in the Army even while deployed at the same post. Additionally, when a soldier of the Border Security Force dies in the line of duty, his family receives none of the benefits available to the families of Army jawans in similar situations. This is because there is no provision for a Border Security Force soldier to be declared a martyr.

Adverse service conditions and the inability to meet urgent family obligations cause a great deal of stress, reflected in the high rate of attrition – 12,096 personnel have either resigned or proceeded on voluntary retirement from 2015 to 2018 while 121 have committed suicide in the same period.

Effective technology

Technology must be introduced extensively to ease the burden on troops, who put in long hours, sometimes stretching to 16 hours a day. This technology must be user-friendly, suit terrain conditions, and not be vendor-driven. The trial of the “Comprehensive Integrated Border Management System” in Jammu and Assam should be extended to ascertain the suitability of such costly technology.

BSF officers inspect a site near the India-Pakistan border in Punjab where packets of confiscated heroin were found. The force deals with high-stakes drug smuggling and militant threats daily. (Credit: Narinder Nanu / AFP)

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 adopting dynamic training policies. In view of increased interaction with civilians both at the borders and in counter-insurgency areas, soft skills attain importance besides the conventional training.

Over the years, the force has inducted different weapons systems. This is largely because of the Indian Police Service leadership’s lack of adequate exposure to the mechanics of war and anti-insurgency operations. The organisation needs to take a fresh look at arming policy. Heavier weapons systems should be authorised only when needed.

Border guarding is rapidly transforming into integrated border management where several agencies are equal stakeholders. In the near future, borders are expected to transform from “barriers” to “bridges” between nations. A smart border man, therefore, has to be aware of the developing scenario and understand the functioning of the various agencies that are involved in the working of “Integrated Check Posts” and “Land Customs Stations” to facilitate hassle-free movement of personnel and goods across borders.

With inculcating a sense of security being an important task, the Border Security Force should have a larger role in the government’s “Border Area Development Programme”. The force is the sole face of the government in remote areas, and the government should take advantage of its reach to plan development programmes and infrastructure in border areas.

The Border Security Force, as an important player in the country’s security matrix, is in urgent need of reforms, failing which there is imminent threat of the force losing its edge.

Sanjiv Krishan Sood is a retired additional director general of the Border Security Force. Over a 38-year-long career, he has served along the Pakistan and Bangladesh borders.