|Cover Story Vol. 2 Issue No. 12||Sept.22 - Oct.6, 2003|
NORTH-EAST India and North Bengal continue to be the hot favourites of immigrants, most of them, if not all of them, illegal aliens; their very presence makes sparks fly at regular intervals in support of passionate nationalist jingoism. Is policing infiltration inefficient? A visit to the North Bengal, reverine border in Dhubri and the Chars that bury the border barrier is a revealing experience. The blame game goes into a spin. North Bengal Frontier covering Kishanganj, Siliguri and Coochbehar stretches to some 1060 kilometres. Seventeen BSF battalions are needed for policing. Only Six battalions are on duty. 80 per cent of the border is not fenced. This task will not be complete before 2005, according to an optimistic local BSF chief BSE K C Sharma.
He is the officiating Inspector General. He concedes the draw backs and yet is confident of BSF ability to rise to the challenge. But ethnic affinity is making policing a nightmare. He doesn’t say so but that is the reality on the porous frontier. Learning from the experience in Assam, North Bengal is taking steps to construct the border road and fencing at the same height. (Fencing in most stretches of Assam- Bangladesh border was at a level lower than the border road. Result was the fence was damaged by the enterprising.) Says Sharma, ethnic affinity of people living on both sides of the border divide makes our task difficult. How to differentiate who is a foreigner who is a Indian citizen. You know, people have their relatives in villages on either side. Who will give out his relative? There are 95 Bangladeshi enclaves in India; these are cut off from the mainland and depend entirely on India. The Teen Bigha corridor, India has gifted to Bangladesh provides the link to Dehgram-Angalpota enclave, the largest of its kind.
As 130 Indian enclaves are covered on either side by Bangladesh, covering an area of about 33 square kilometres. Obviously it is a humanitarian problem, not merely a law and order border policing. BSF has another handicap - 169 Indian villages are bang on the international border. According to Inspector General Sharma, these will remain outside the fencing, and it would pose a major operational problem in the days to come. “We have already taken up the matter with the West Bengal Government. Our proposal is shift small villages to outside the fence area. It reduces the pressure on the force and the villages alike. The State Government conducted a survey. I understand that some of these villages are likely to be shifted.”
Karimganj district in Assam is facing a similar problem as a number of villages of the district are located outside the fencing. These villages remain cut off for 12 hours every day from 6 pm to 6 am. This is because of dusk to dawn curfew. The North Bengal Frontier shot into focus at the beginning of the year. Till then it was one of those sleeping beauties. Bangladesh Rifles tried to push 213 Bangladeshi nationals into India through Mathabhanga area on January 31 last. The BDR attempt came a few days after the Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani’s statement that all illegal migrants would be driven out from India.
Sharma recalls the incident: “There is no doubt that they were all Bangladeshi nationals. By profession, they are snake charmers. You can see their names in the voters’ list of Bangladesh. We also found electricity bills and other documents with them to prove that they were indeed Bangladeshi nationals”.
According to him, the BDR could have picked them up at random from different places. “But the BDR was ultimately forced to take these people back as we stopped them right at the border. We allowed them to speak to the media and that helped our cause – they openly admitted that they were Bangladeshi nationals. When we met BDR officials later, we told them bluntly not to attempt such things. They have not tried anything since then.” BSF has been picking up more and more infiltrators and smugglers in the North Bengal frontier. The number is steadily increasing. Last year till September end, 1558 infiltrators and smugglers were apprehended. Cattle, sugar, salt, kerosene, medicines and some heroine are brought in. Electronic items, synthetic yarn, auto parts et al are smuggled out. At present, the BSF has 179 border outposts; each covers an area of six kilometres. More forces are needed to set up more Out Posts to put a post for every 3.5 km with huge high rise sentry posts. BSF has 253 sentry towers. Another 150 are under construction. Floodlighting will improve matters. BSF officials say they are working on the proposal. IMDT IN WATERS Visit Dhubri and see the difference. Border with Bangladesh is 123 km long. Exactly 51 kms is demarcated in water. So, no surprise as politicians are locked in a war of words over what to do with IM (DT) Act, Bangladeshis sneak in merrily at will, often at night, some times at night in rain. BSF has guards on vigil along the 72-km stretch of land border; this is a belt mostly fenced with barbed wire. But during the rainy season, some portions of the land border get inundated and even the fence remains totally submerged. Merry time for infiltrators! Dhubri Deputy Commissioner, Prasanta Baruah is worried. Areas near the Jinjiram River which follows a serpentine path and often changes its course are not properly fenced. This is a vulnerable stretch, he says. He has no such worry over the land border. “It is well-protected and the influx of Bangladeshis in the last few years had abated to a great extent”, he says. Especially after the Boraibari incident ( in April last year 12 BSF men were killed in exchange of fire with the BDR), the BSF has stepped up its vigil considerably to thwart any intrusion by the Bangladeshis, Baruah adds. Recurring floods in Dhubri are a major hurdle in protecting the border as vast areas including fences are submerged, making it almost impossible to put a constant watch over the entire area. The floods also weaken the fences and shorten their life span considerably At present eight outposts of the 112 Bn BSF are guarding the reverine border, who have put up a brave front despite the handicaps they face in the form of shortage of manpower, inadequate infrastructure and harsh living conditions. “We are short of sufficient staff and equipment, and this is definitely hampering a round-the-clock vigil over the area,” a BSF soldier said.
The outpost, situated on a char of 25 sq km in area, has 12 staff and two boats. “Food and unhygienic living conditions are also a problem with us and to top it all, our salary and allowances are too meagre,” he lamented. Another BSF man on condition of anonymity said a vast stretch of the border area along Gaspara, Takimari, Patamari, Bhogdor, Mantichar and Masalabari are not properly fenced and it is very difficult to keep a close watch over the area.
Faced with an intensified vigil by the BSF, especially along the land border, the infiltrators, of late, have adopted another method of entering Assam. Taking advantage of the unguarded North Bengal frontier, they first enter Bengal and then make their way into Assam. Dhubri shares 126 km of inter-State border with West Bengal and Meghalaya. Smuggling is also rampant along the border. The Gaspara outpost recently seized two boats carrying smuggled items and Rs 6,000 worth Bangla Taka. While sugar, salt, medicine, etc., are the commonly smuggled items from India, diesel, kerosene, electronic goods, etc., are smuggled into the country from Bangladesh. BLAME GAME After crores of rupees of investment and labour of long years, here is the verdict: border fencing has wrong design and hence ineffective in checking infiltration into Assam. There is also rampant misuse of funds earmarked for border roads. Here is a glaring example - a bridge constructed near Gheomari area along the international boundary in Dhubri sector. It is literally a hanging bridge over a local stream that merges with the Brahmaputra. Bridge is ready. But not approach road. On either side. NO body is talking about it, strangely! the bridge from both sides, but interestingly,
BSF men are posted at Gheomari. Their task is to prevent ‘sneakers’ through the river, particularly after sunset. How are they supposed to cross the bridge? Who cares for such niceties? “Those who want to sneak into India never use engine fitted boats and it is difficult to prevent soundless country boats to sneak in through the gap created by the failure to construct the approach roads to the bridge,” say BSF men on duty. The hanging bridge is only one example of the failure to properly utilise the funds for border roads and fencing. The fencing is broken in most parts even before erection of fencing all along the border is completed, making it easy for Bangladeshi nationals and other anti-social elements to sneak in merrily. The broken fencing also makes the BSF task even harder as it is impossible to keep a close watch on each broken part of the fencing round the clock. The condition of the fencing deteriorated mainly because of faulty design as the height of the same is much lower than that of the border road; during rainy season such fenced border is under water and once can cross ‘the fenced border’ by boat. Water level should have been measured before laying the road and constructing the fence. This wasn’t done. “Erection of fencing on raised platforms would not only have ensured its longevity but also would have been of great help in patrolling the border. You see, it is difficult for anyone to cross over without coming to the notice of the forces manning the border,” BSF sources point out. TGP picks up aliens issue The Trinamool Gana Parishad (TGP) has picked up the aliens issue. “The national parties are only concerned about a citizen of foreign nationality becoming the Prime Minister of the country and are least bothered about the situation in Assam where infiltrators from across the border has brought about severe demographic distortions”, laments Atul Bora, a one time AGP top honcho and now General Secretary, TGP. Atul Bora said that the illegal immigrants have forcibly occupied land and property in the State and pushed the indigenous people into a corner. The TGP had submitted a memorandum to the Governor seeking his intervention in finding solutions to the problems of the State. CHARS BURY BORDER BARRIER
They are cut off from the mainland and live together in the chars. Outside world knows very little about them. And the government officials care much less about them. The state wakes up to their existence only during troubled times.
The international boundary passes right through a number of chars; some of these chars are of permanent nature but most keep changing every year after floods. The people of both India and Bangladesh live together in the permanent chars with only border pillars dividing them but with no border fencing, these people, who share same religion and culture, mingle with each other easily despite the presence of the Border Security Force (BSF) and Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) men. Masalabari is by far the largest char. It is home to a cluster of 12 villages. Motakhowa is the big village with more than two thousand people. Border pillars have been set up to demarcate the international boundary, passing through the char; but it is no barrier for the people as no way the BSF can stop people of Bangladesh coming to the Indian part of the char and our people going over to Bangaldesh.
In the Indian char villages, the administration has only provided hand pumps, that too before the elections. This is despite the fact that the Assam Government now has a full-fledged Char Area Development Department. Says Saif Ansari, a school teacher at Kalaicharbari in the Masalabari char: we donot have much land for cultivation. So most of our people here go to Dhubri for making a living as daily wage workers, rickshaw –pullers etc. It takes about four-five hours by boat.
What about doctors, medicine…?
“ We have no doctors in the chars; we have to go to Dhubri for treatment. It is really tough during floods. A number of sick people die on the way while going to Dhubri. Medical camps are held here but that is once or twice a year”. Hamida Khatun said that lack of health care is a major problem. Shortage of food stuff is another. We have to go to Dhubri for every thing. The poor have to go to Dhubri for getting some work but each boat ride costs them Rs 10. According to her, even the Panchayat meetings take place at Dhubri.
One commonly heard complaint is there is very little presence of administration in these chars. Senior officers of the district administration very rarely visit. Some times BSF helps with medicines to the sick and ailing. There is no electricity; so in this 21st century, Char people switch on their kerosene lamps at sun set. But kerosene is a rationed commodity. Only three litres per family per month! Poor people turn to Dhubri black market for kerosene. Saif Ansari has a suggestion: why not provide solar plates like the ones used by the BSF to the people of the locality.
What about school buildings?
A visit shows that the condition of the school buildings has not improved in years. At some places in there is also acute shortage of teachers. This is affecting education of the Char children.
How is equation between Indian and Bangladeshis?
Ansari says it is cordial, very cordial in fact. Remember Indians and Bangladeshis are living in the same chars for years. Any disputes are often settled amicably at the local level. BSF officials on duty in the Chars admit to smuggling of salt to Bangladesh. Salt is a scarce item in Bangladesh; in most cases, the people smuggle out salt in small quantities. “We know that we should not allow any smuggling to take place but there were instances when we caught widows trying to smuggle out a few kilograms of salt and they later said that their children would starve to death if they are not allowed to sale the salt,” a BSF official said.
The official also said that other items like sugar and even DDT are smuggled out to Bangladeshi villagers and other items like potato and vegetables are smuggled in and out of the country depending on the price in India and Bangladesh. If the price of the foodstuff goes up in India, the Indian citizens procure the same from the Bangladeshi villagers, who do the same when the price goes up in Bangladesh. TOUGH LIFE FOR BSF Border Security Force (BSF) men in the Dhubri sector lead a tough life due to the terrain and weather conditions; those on duty in the Chars are isolated for days; their contact with outside world is when the colleagues come visiting them with rations. For them life-line is a speed- boat or country boar fitted with a hired engine. The BSF has a well -fortified camp in the Masalabari char; it offers them the strategic view of the international boundary. During winter months, the boats cannot reach the char and the personnel have to walk in sand and mud for three to four kilometres to reach the camp. But some portions get inundated during high floods.
The problem is much worse at Mahamaya. Here the whole BSF camp was under water during the floods this year. They cannot hope for a turn around in the winter because at that time engine fitted boats from Dubri find it difficult to approach the char directly. The sentinels of the frontier are forced to fight with the weather all through the year in addition to their routine duty Ditto is the condition of the BSF men posted in other chars to protect the border.
Severe erosion is posing a threat to the BSF camp at Kalaicharbari. River Brahmaputra is menacingly approaching the camp, now it is flowing just a few feet away from the camp. Sooner or later BSF will be forced to move out to a new location. In fact, shifting men and material comes naturally to the BSF in the chars as these keep shifting year after year. The BSF men manning the Border Outposts in the chars have to depend entirely on the ration brought from Dhubri and in some places, it takes hours of travelling by boats to reach the BOPs from the nearest towns. BSF men have a new luxury these days – solar lamps. But such lamps are not available at all the BOPs. Not to speak of infrared torches, global positioning system, ground surveillance radars – dependable tools for border guards world over.| Headlines | Editorial | From Other Publications |
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