The Indian government has set a new deadline for the completion of the fencing of its border with Bangladesh after repeated failures over the past three decades.
The latest annual report of the home ministry mentions that an unfenced stretch of around 952 kilometers would be completed by March 2024 with a mix of physical and non-physical barriers.
The 4096.7-km long India-Bangladesh border passes through flat terrain, riverine belts, hills and jungles. The erection of the fence is aimed at preventing illegal immigration and cross-border criminal activities. The home ministry also feels that a fence would contribute to checking “anti-national activities” along the border.
There are also plans to increase floodlighting, border outposts, integrated check posts and roads within a specific timeframe.
However, completing the fence by the deadline may be easier said than done. The home ministry has been struggling to overcome hurdles at some zones along the border continuously for the past several years.
Explaining the failure to complete the fencing of the border, former additional director-general of India’s Border Security Force P. K. Mishra said that “land acquisition along the border is the core issue. The border touches as many as five states (in India) and there are zones where villages are located right on the zero line. In such cases, villages would have to be relocated and state governments have a crucial role” to play in this.
According to Mishra, the greatest challenge of the project lies in the state of West Bengal which shares a border of 2216.7 km with Bangladesh. The West Bengal government, he said, “has been reluctant to resolve the issue.” Additionally, “fencing the border would be a hindrance to the lucrative illicit trade in cattle and other contraband items and this will hurt the financial interests of many people. Residents in some border villages are unwilling to relocate to other places.”
Another officer identified five districts along the border — Malda, Murshidabad and Cooch Behar in West Bengal; Karimganj in Assam; and West Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya — where the fence is yet to be erected. He pointed out that the BSF has been holding regular meetings with the state governments for an early resolution of the issues.
Land acquisition is a time-consuming process that stretches over several years. The state government has to identify the stakeholders, convince them to sell their land and decide the quantum of compensation from the home ministry. In India’s northeast, major government projects have been delayed due to the opposition of local residents.
The government’s efforts to intensify surveillance at the border have sometimes prompted the local populace to turn hostile. A few months ago, residents of a village in Cooch Behar close to the border blocked a road near a BSF camp for several hours, demanding that they be allowed to grow corn and jute on their land beyond the fences. There have also been occasions when BSF personnel have been killed while patrolling the border.
The fence has to be erected at a distance of 150 yards from the zero line as per the norms agreed upon by the two countries. Besides the challenge of meeting the deadline, the Indian government has the additional task of re-erecting the fence at some zones where it was constructed in violation of the norms. In Karimganj, for instance, the fence excluded eight villages. The BSF used to keep the gate open every day from 6 am to 7 pm for longer on Wednesdays and Saturdays. There are plans to relocate the fence along a 5-km-long.
Construction of the fence commenced along some zones in Assam in 1986, almost year after the Assam Accord was inked between the government and civil society groups from the state. The agreement stipulated that “the international border shall be made secure against future infiltration by the erection of physical barriers like walls, barbed wire fencing and other obstacles at appropriate places.”
Bangladesh had objected to the fence citing a border agreement between the two countries in 1975 that disallowed any defense structure within 150 yards from the zero line. It was only in 2010 that Dhaka came around to agreeing to the fence provided it is necessitated by “humanitarian concerns and geographical realities.”