Brig Anil Gupta
India enjoys a strategic location in Southern Part of Asian continent It is centrally located between the East and the West Asia. India is also strategically located at the center of the trans-Indian Ocean routes which connect the European countries in the West and the countries of East Asia. It is also considered a subcontinent because it covers an expansive land mass that includes the Himalayan region in the North, the vast Gangetic Plain, the coastal plateau and a large coastline. The various passes across the Himalayas acted as gateways in the past for exchange of ideas and commodities. The land and coastal borders were used by the Indian kings and rulers to extend India’s cultural influence across its boundaries while the same were also used by the various invaders who ventured to conquer Indian territory and loot its wealth. Thus, borders have played important role in ensuring survival of the great Indian civilization, one of the two only surviving civilisations.
India’s strategic location bestows it with many challenges as well. Large land and coastal border are one such challenge. India’s coastline is 7,683 km long with an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) measuring over 2 million square kilo meter in size. In this article the focus will be on management of land borders not because the coastal borders provide lesser challenge but because of the fact that post Mumbai terror attacks lot of impetus has been accorded to coastal security including proposed Maritime Theatre Command and the Maritime Commission.
As far as land borders are concerned, India shares border with seven countries measuring more than 15,000 km. India’s two neighbours namely Pakistan and China are hostile with unsettled and disputed borders. The border with other neighbours is porous which lends to cross-border migration because of its unparalleled rate of economic growth viz a viz the neighbours. Thus, India’s national security is inextricably intertwined with holistic border management. Many experts term border management as the first line of defence. Border management does not mean mere deployment of border guarding forces but has much wider scope to include border area development, communications, meeting aspirations of border dwellers, promotion of national interests and coordination with neighbouring states. The security of borders provides a secure environment for the economic developmental activities including domestic and foreign investment as well as commerce.
By ignoring the development of the border areas, the previous regimes had made our national security very vulnerable leading to smuggling, narcotics trade, cross-border terror, narco-terrorism, counterfeit currency, salami-slicing of our territory in the border areas and Kargil like operations. It was the NDA government under Bharat Ratan Atal Bihari Vajpayee that ordered the setting up of the task force to review the border management system post Kargil War. As mentioned earlier, apart from the border guarding forces which require material and financial support from the Government, there are other stakeholders as well, hence border management needs holistic multi-stakeholder approach.
The present NDA Government led by Narendra Modi is very conscious of the security and development of the border areas. It has not only taken steps to streamline the ongoing Border Area Development Programme (BADP) by issuing fresh revised guidelines to maximise the benefits and ensuring that priority is given to strategically important border villages/ towns as identified by the border guarding forces. To ensure that the funds are utilized judiciously and for the desired purpose only a mechanism of Social Audit by Gram Sabhas or similar bodies in addition to the present mechanisms of the State/UT/Central Governments has been introduced. A system of appointing Prabhari officers for each district to provide independent feedback on the development works undertaken through a quarterly report has also been put in place. Moreover, all the projects are being geo-mapped and uploaded on the BADP Online Management System. The allocation of funds and funding pattern has also been streamlined to give additional weightage to hilly, desert and Rann areas due to difficult terrain, scarcity of resources and higher costs of construction. The Programme presently covers 396 Blocks of 111 Districts in 16 States and 2 Union Territories. Additionally, the programme also covers census villages, semi-urban and urban areas located within 10 km distance from the first habitation from the International Border (IB). The government has also clarified that after 0-10 km area is saturated, the benefits of the program may cover 10-20/30/40/50 km area. Only 10% of the allocated funds can be spent on assets created under Border Area Development Scheme (BADS) by the States/UTs.
Immediately, after coming to power in 2014, the Modi led government took a very major decision with regards to strategic roads and projects in the States bordering China which had fallen victim to the very stringent environmental and forest clearance rules made by the previous government. Convinced with the fact that strategic and defence projects should not be delayed or held up for procedural reasons and conscious of the rapid development of structure made by China across the border, it gave the ‘general clearance’ to allow diversion of forest land for constructing two-lane roads within 100 km of border in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. This led to completion of many stalled projects and improving connectivity and infrastructure along border with China. The effect of this was evident during the Doklam stand-off in 2017 and the ongoing standoff in Ladakh. In order to further speed up these projects, the government is now considering to have a separate protocol for defence projects and infrastructure as it would also help keep much-needed confidentiality.
Modi Government is equally focused with the border with Pakistan. Aware of the fact that any exodus from the border villages adversely affects the national security large number of schemes have been launched to improve the quality of life and provision of better facilities and amenities to the border dwellers. Maximum out-ward migration takes place from border villages for seeking jobs and livelihood. Continued cross-border shelling across the LOC and working boundary (as Pakistan refers to IB in the plains sector of J&K) by Pakistan also created sense of insecurity and panic among the border residents who demanded land in safer areas in the rear where they could settle. However, the Government is not in favour of vacating border villages and hence gave a free hand to the border guarding forces and the army to retaliate to punish the enemy as and when it resorted to unprovoked cross-border firing. It had the desired impact and peace now prevails along the LoC and working boundary.
In a first of its kind, Modi Government organized Frontier Area Development Festival in the Rann of Kutch in the winter of 2020. It was attended among others by the nation’s Home Minister who made it abundantly clear that the government’s aim was not just to develop the border areas but also stop border migration and increase national security. He also stated that notwithstanding the remoteness of border areas, the government is determined to provide them roads, gas, electricity, dwellings, electricity, health insurance and medical care. Many of these are also covered under the aspirational district scheme of the Government.
The most recent initiative of the Government is the announcement of Vibrant Village Programme in the budget 2022-23 by the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman who had also donned the hat of Defence Minister earlier.The programme targets villages on the northern borders left out so far of development gains.The activities will include construction of village infrastructure, provision of decentralized renewable energy, road connectivity, access to Doordarshan, tourist spots, livelihood generation and healthcare. The Government plans to provide additional funds for these activities as well as converge all existing schemes. This will be a real game changer and tit a tat to the belligerent Chinese who are developing new villages on the border. It would help stem the tide of out-migration from the border areas and hopefully reverse the trend in future as these villages become not only livable but also generate livelihood through Vocal for Local and promotion of border tourism. The infrastructure thus developed can be dual-purpose or dual-use and used by the army or the border defending forces for patrolling, surveillance and in case of active hostilities. The Government is also keen to extend railways to these areas and is working towards that end.
As India continues to struggle for its due place among comity of nations, it needs to evolve a robust and balanced border management policy rather than relying on convergence of different schemes and programmes.
(The author is a Jammu-based veteran)
Brig Anil Gupta