Home Minister Rajnath Singh has recently declared that the entire India-Pakistan border is to be completely sealed by December 2018. The announcement may be viewed in the context of India-Pakistan relations reaching a particular low and uncertain threshold post the Uri incident and cross-Line of Control (LoC) operations by India on 28-29 September 2016. The above-referred decision of the Union Government is reported to have been taken after a review of gaps in border management by a high-level Committee on Security and Border Protection (CSBP) of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) (popularly known as the Madhukar Gupta Committee) set up in March 2016 to overcome the lacunae observed consequent on the Gurdaspur and Pathankot infiltration occurrences. The outcome of the review is likely to have influenced the decision on setting 2018 as the target for a total sealing of the border. As of now, Pakistan Government sources have indicated that they have no comments on this development given the absence of details. Some Chinese think-tank commentators have, however, observed that such a venture would be irrational, indicative of Cold War mentality and likely to complicate relations among China, India and Pakistan, without elucidating as to how this decision would impinge on Chinese interests.
Government sources have indicated that a border security grid with a provision for real-time monitoring of the entire length of the border and capability for intervention as necessary is to be put in place. This will obviously involve networked coordination among the states’ home departments and their police authorities, their Central counterparts, MHA and the agencies responsible for technical and electronic surveillance. Furthermore, the works authorities at the central and state levels will have to be involved in the logistics of the forces assigned to protect the border, border fencing, sensors being installed, and providing access road network to the border outposts. It is, however, not clear whether a physical infrastructure in the form of a wall or obstacles on the pattern of the Israeli West Bank defences (in Israeli-occupied Palestine territory) is to be eventually erected.
Even a complete sealing by barbed wire fences, adequately grouted with concrete supporting bases and flood lighting, of India`s western international border stretching 3323 kms from Gujarat to Jammu & Kashmir would undoubtedly be a stupendous task. The length to be covered in the four states – Gujarat 508 kms, Rajasthan 1037 kms, Punjab 553 kms and Jammu & Kashmir 1225 kms – including 740 kms of Line of Control (LoC) northwards of the terminating point of the international boundary in Jammu is quite substantial. Moreover, the terrain conditions and socio-economic milieu in the border regions of these states as well as the engineering efforts involved are likely to make the border sealing exercise quite an exacting one. While the need for effective border protection and guarding against infiltration by anti-national elements, smugglers, etc., is undeniable, the manner in which the sealing would take place will be of the essence. Within India also, particularly in Punjab, a total political consensus in the matter has not been evident as of now. There are reports that the Border Security Force has brought to the government`s notice a proposal to shift the existing fence in some parts of the western border closer to the international boundary. The objective is to enable local farmers to cultivate their farmlands to a greater extent by releasing a part of the area presently lying between the existing fence and the international boundary line. The government may find such a proposal difficult to accede to because of cost implications, resource constraints and, even, Pakistan`s objections for tactical reasons.
So far as the geographical conditions are concerned, the border terrain varies from flat grasslands of the Punjab plains to extreme climatic sandy areas and marshy salt patches in Rajasthan and Gujarat. In Jammu & Kashmir, the LoC portion of the border to the north, beyond the 200 kms of international boundary in southern Jammu region, is hilly, forested and intersected by many mountainous rivers and numerous nallahs or drains. While a major part of the LoC and the international boundary in Jammu region is fenced, a substantial part of the international boundary has also been fenced and floodlit – 461 kms in Punjab and 1048 kms (fenced including extra fencing in some portions) with 1023 kms floodlit in Rajasthan, as per the last Annual Report of the MHA. The remaining stretches of the border are yet to be covered. Moreover, there are segments of the border like the Shahgarh bulge in Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan, which have extreme climatic conditions for a major part of the year with average daytime temperatures soaring to more than 50 degrees Celsius, where metallic fencing does not last long. 32 kms of this bulge could not be adequately fenced because of such terrain. Furthermore, there are portions in the Jaisalmer-Barmer segment in Rajasthan where even the border (presently unfenced) markings get covered by shifting sand dunes. In Gujarat, only 229 kms has been fenced and 202 kms floodlit out of the 553 kms of the border. 64 kms in the Rann-of-Kutch segment of the Gujarat border has been left unfenced owing to saltpan-marshy conditions. All these serve to highlight the extent of engineering and financial resources that will be needed to completely seal the border.
There are reports of India availing Israeli expertise towards executing its border sealing project. In this regard, it is relevant to mention that the political milieu and geographical conditions of Israel`s border areas and India`s are not exactly similar. However, in difficult stretches of the LoC in Jammu & Kashmir and certain other segments of the border, India-Israel cooperation to adopt advanced techniques like installing laser-wall coverage of border portions where physical obstacles cannot be placed or maintained in all-weather conditions may be attempted. Another factor to consider is that, along substantial stretches of the India-Pakistan border, there is traditional and ethnic affinity among the people residing on both sides of the dividing line, unlike in the case of Israeli settlers in occupied Arab territories and the indigenous Arab inhabitants. Therefore, a total replication of the Israeli pattern of border guarding or sealing may not be efficacious or judicious.
The authorities concerned both at the central and state levels may also have to reckon with the impact of the sealing of the border on trade and intercourse in the border areas. Even when bilateral relations between India and Pakistan have not been warm and totally free from tension, a modicum of trade – even in barter form – as distinct from smuggling, has prevailed between the adjoining western districts of Rajasthan and places like Hyderabad and Mirpur Khas in Sindh province of Pakistan. A complete sealing of the border should not shut off prospects for such trade. The border sealing infrastructure should not therefore be set up in a manner that its mechanisms work to the detriment of increasing trade at the formal level. This will only be feasible if facilitating trade points and infrastructure are suitably factored in within a dynamic and high-surveillance border grid.
A complete sealing of the India-Pakistan border will be a sensitive multi-dimensional endeavour with significant capital cost and recurring (for maintenance) financial implications. There are executional problems also, as is evident from the failure of the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) (assigned the primary task of constructing the border fence) in avoiding time and cost overruns, as can be observed from the Annual Reports of the MHA. For effective oversight and ground patrolling of the border, connecting roads to the border outposts are also necessary. Slow land acquisition has also been an impediment towards creating such a network of link roads to the border outposts. For effective border guarding, the inter-border outpost distance should also be reduced to 3.5 kms, apart from upgrading a number of such outposts, entailing substantial civil works by the CPWD. Instead of erecting static structures or walls with mounted electronic complements, a more dynamic mode of border management and surveillance may be expedient and cost-effective with concomitant mobile patrols by all-terrain vehicles, hovercraft, etc. A complementary arrangement which enables 24x7 satellite surveillance, may also be worked out.
The author is a retired IDAS officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir and the North East in senior state and central government positions.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.