Securing our borders

The incoming government must take forward the national strategy agenda


By Shyam Saran

National security has become a major issue in the ongoing elections. This could be a positive development, provided the current focus is sustained beyond the din of elections with a new political dispensation inheriting the reins of government later this month. One key aspect involves securing India’s long and contested borders as well as its vast maritime frontiers. This is no easy task and demands careful assessment of the challenges they pose due to the complexities of terrain, demographic particularities, political, social and economic characteristics of border and coastal states and the state of relations with adjacent foreign states.  Effective border management cannot be separated from a sound neighbourhood policy. A comprehensive consideration of border management must wait but it may be worthwhile to flag some urgent issues which the incoming government should address. I am drawing upon three border infrastructure surveys I was tasked to carry out over 2004-2015.

Our armed forces are required to serve at remote, high-altitude posts in extremely inclement weather conditions. Siachen is only one such theatre. The fibre glass dwelling units were not properly insulated from the cold and the use of kerosene heaters exposed soldiers to noxious fumes. Often the toilets and kitchens did not have proper shelter or heating. These conditions had persisted despite high-altitude dwellings with proper heating being routine even in tourist locations in mountainous countries like Switzerland and Nordic countries. As a result of the survey, some improvements have been made. For example, installing units using water radiators but apparently the scheme has not gone beyond the pilot stage. It is recommended that modern, properly heated dwellings be provided at all our posts located in high altitude. We must not subject our young officers and soldiers to more hardship than is necessary.

The quality of our border posts is poor in comparison to what China has put in place over the past three decades. A large proportion of their posts are at the LAC or only a few kilometres behind. They are connected by all-weather metal roads linking up with the trans-Tibet highway and the Tibet-Xinjiang highway. In several posts 24X7 electricity is provided through transmission lines stretched right up to the LAC. The living quarters are modern and comfortable and can accommodate a much larger number of soldiers than actually deployed. That is because additional troops can be brought in speedily thanks to excellent connectivity. On our side, border posts are typically several kilometres south of the LAC. We have to deploy the numbers who may have to fight at these locations themselves, because in a crisis situation it would take too much time to deploy additional personnel from the interior. This asymmetry has to be acknowledged and efforts must be made to minimise its impact. We need more roads up to the LAC itself or as near as possible.

Considerable progress has been made in the construction of border roads, including a trans-Arunachal highway along the northern bank of the Brahmaputra. Several feeder roads now connect this highway to locations at or near the LAC. However, there are major problems in our border road building programme.  Most alignments in the mountainous zone tend to follow valleys of streams and rivers, where construction may be easier and the distance between points A and B the shortest. However, these roads, which are critical in supplying border posts, often get washed away due to floods and storm surges. Communications are interrupted, repairs take time and the story is repeated every few years. It would be far better to construct roads away from banks and along adjacent ridges, which may mean longer distance but make up in terms of reliability and durability. There would also be considerable saving in the long run through avoidance of frequent repairs. The use of satellite imagery and geo-spatial applications can help plot the most suitable alignment.

In J&K we have the Valley enclosed by high mountains, beyond which lies a sliver of territory, for example Poonch and Rajouri, where most of our border posts on the LoC with Pakistan are located. There are five passes through which the Valley is connected to the border zone and these are free of snow six-seven months during the year. This means that supplies have to be taken across during summer but must be stocked to last through winter. The long-term solution is to build tunnels where the passes are to permit all-weather access. In the meantime, snow clearing equipment should be deployed to extend traffic by at least two-three months. This is also the case on the highways built to provide alternative access to the Valley from Himachal. Recommendations regarding the building of tunnels along the existing road alignments must be given urgent consideration because they are the only long-term solution to a persistent border security challenge.

Regular patrols are indispensable. However, patrol routes specified by our defence establishment must not end up defining the alignment of our borders. It is important that in addition to regular patrols along authorised routes, armed forces personnel regularly visit and assert their presence in areas beyond the patrol lines. In fact, there is a good case for doing away with these lines altogether and ensure our presence right up to where we claim our borders lie.

There are other issues related to border management but those listed above must be high on the agenda of the incoming government. If they could be considered as part of an overall security strategy, so much the better.

 (The author is Former foreign secretary and senior fellow, centre for policy research)

(By arrangement with The Tribune, Chandigarh)

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