Poor and porous: Why India needs to tighten up its border management

A report commissioned by the Ministry of Home Affairs points out several inadequacies in the way we tackle cross-border crime, be it terrorism, drug trafficking or other issues.

Published: 16th September 2017 08:16 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th September 2017 08:23 AM   |  A+A-

In the wake of the Rohingya refugee crisis, an Indian jawan keeps vigil at the Myanmar border in Manipur | Hemanta singha

Express News Service

NEW DELHI: India’s border with Bangladesh runs 4,096 km, 3,323 km with Pakistan, 1,751 km with Nepal and 1,643 km with Myanmar. Each presents a different challenge to the force guarding it and to the security establishment, according to a report on India’s border management prepared by senior IPS officer Santosh Mehra, presently inspector-general of police (personnel) with the Border Security Force (BSF).

The report points out that border management in India has been characterised by security ambivalence and lack of strategic thinking. This is evident from (a) the absence of a policy to check infiltration/illegal migration from the eastern borders; (b) inability to stop or contain cross-border terrorism; and (c) trafficking in drugs and other contraband including fake currency. The geomorphology of India’s borders, their historical evolution and legal status, the nature of cross-border socio-economic-ethnic transactions, and the nature of border control and enforcement differ along various sectors of the border, the report states.

“Accordingly, the crime pattern varies along the land borders with different neighbours. For example, the India-Bangladesh border is more porous in comparison to the India-Pakistan border,” it says. One key fact is that while several countries share a border with India, few share one with each other. “In many instances, they are landlocked. For better connectivity with the outside world, they are much dependent on India for connectivity with a seaport or for transit facilities. Unfortunately, a lot of mistrust prevails amongst the countries of this region and intra-regional trade is very low in comparison to the other regions of the world,” the report says.

Though the BSF, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) have proved their worth in the face of aggression by neighbours, when it comes to control of day-to-day cross-border crimes, these forces have a limited role to play. The existing arrangements to control cross-border crime have proved to be inadequate, the report points out.

“In fact, this aspect has drawn less responsiveness than required. For example, to control illegal movement of people across the border, the Bureau of Immigration (BOI) is the nodal agency of the central government. However, because of its limited reach, BOI has checking facilities at limited ports and the job has been delegated to the state police.

“Similarly, the Preventive Unit of Customs is the nodal agency for controlling smuggling. However, their limited staff are far from adequate to exercise such control on land borders. Most of the seizures on land borders are by Border Guarding Forces,” it says.

As per the 11th Five-Year Plan, the Centre has taken up the task of setting up integrated check posts at 13 locations on the Indo-Pakistan, Indo-Nepal, Indo-Bangladesh and Indo-Myanmar borders. Some have been operationalised.

The report recommends the location of multi-agency Integrated Law Enforcement Centres (ILECs) within this architecture, drawing personnel from all departments mandated to check cross-border crime.

This would obviate the need to have an office for each such agency at each site.
However, a senior official said that as law and order is a state subject, it remains to be seen what role states will have over the ILECs. “A lot depends on the Centre-state relationship,” he said, while pointing out the lacuna of relying on state police agencies, burdened by lack of resources and expertise, to handle cross-border and transnational crime.

Elaborating on this, the officer said, “After an arrest or a seizure by a border force, such cases are handed over to the local police for investigation and further disposal. However, these cases are given a sub-optimum priority by the local police.” The Mehra report also points out a similar lacuna.

“The institutional arrangements in dealing with cross-border and transnational crime are sub-optimal in an era of ever-growing complexity in such crimes. There are different agencies active on the land borders operating within the silos of their specific mandate striving for agency-specific micro-level optimisation with lesser degree of inter-agency cooperation, coordination and complementarity.

In fact, many a time, inter agency competition may lead to sub-optimal outcomes at the national level. There are instances of both gaps as well as overlaps in the role, jurisdiction and working of the agencies. These old institutional arrangements appear to be not supporting an evolution in their mandate and working style in the ever-changing landscape; and whenever some changes are noticed, they are insignificant and mostly incremental,” it states.

International parallels

The Santosh Mehra report recommends a multi-agency integrated mechanism to tackle cross-border and transnational crime, replete with dedicated fast-track courts to deal with such crimes. However, the formation of such an agency requires resolute political will at the top and active support from all stakeholders, particularly the state governments.

USA: In the US, a window of opportunity was provided by 9/11, when the then president could garner support across the spectrum. This resulted in the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, equivalent to a ministry of the government in India, meant exclusively for management of land and coastal borders. The formation of the department was the biggest government reorganisation following the 9/11 attacks. It involved the merger of 22 agencies.

European Union: Frontex is the main institutional arrangement for external border management of the European Union.

UK: The Border Agency formed in 2008 by merging the Border and Immigration Agency, the visas and port of entry functions of HM Revenue and Customs.
Australia: Australia’s Customs and Border Services is an integrated federal government entity that covers import and export control, border protection, human trafficking, terrorism, illegal entry, narcotics, among others.

Canada: The Border Services Agency was formed by amalgamating components of agencies such as Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, among others.

One agency for all border crimes

Taking a cue from the existing trend across the world, the ideal solution is to integrate all the stakeholders in one single entity with a mandate to cover all aspects of border-management. There should be a well-trained and equipped central agency, having a presence along all stretches of the border, both land and coastal, with a clearly defined mandate of preventing and detecting federal crime.

Cross-border drug trafficking

Cross-border trafficking of narcotics is prevalent on both the India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh borders. However, while the number of complaints filed has been increasing, the number of chargesheets filed by the local police is abysmally low and is showing a declining trend.

Attacks on BSF personnel
Since the adoption of non-lethal means of border guarding by the BSF on the India-Bangladesh border, attacks by cross-border miscreants on BSF personnel have increased. Between 2013 and 2015, there was a steady rise in such attacks.

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