The plans to convert India’s borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan into “smart” barriers, moving away from the present system of constant men-in-boots patrols to one that supplements that surveillance radars, closed circuit TVs and possibly drones, has long been overdue. However, New Delhi should be realistic about how effective such physical instruments are in maintaining borders. They must be part of a larger policy that includes trade incentives, sensible visa and legal migration channels, and reforms of India’s own border forces.
The sheer length and inhospitable terrain that marks most of India’s borders has always meant that building fences and sending patrols were at best a half-measure. Supplementing this with electronic measures and drones had already begun in parts of the border facing Pakistan. The advantage of using electronics is that it allows 24/7 surveillance as opposed to the few minutes of watchfulness every few hours that physical patrols provide. But a smart border is also vulnerable to extreme weather — flooding on the Bangladesh side, snow on the Kashmir side, rainstorms on both — and the fact that “maintenance” is a word often found missing from the vocabulary of the Indian state. It is also not a guarantee of proof against penetration. The borders of Israel and the southern United States are among the tightest on the planet and regularly suffer breaches — and both these countries have technology and budgets that will not be available to New Delhi.
Which is why the Indian side should continuously look at how to strengthen the border through soft measures. Illegal migration from Bangladesh is largely an economic issue. India should therefore seek to provide a legal visa path for such workers. Keep in mind that the number of Indian workers attracted by Bangladesh’s thriving textile sector is not insignificant. Some sort of reciprocity in this area should be worked out. Otherwise economic incentives will ensure that criminality and smugglers will find means to get through even the smartest of borders — and once breached, the border will cease to function properly. The experience of the US and Mexico, where much of the migration is now governed by temporary work visas, should be instructive. India already has open border arrangements with Nepal and Bhutan so moving to a managed border with Bangladesh, especially given how strategically important the country has become to India, is a logical extension. Border management with Pakistan will obviously have a different set of priorities almost all related to security. But the first smart reform needed is to improve the training and internal compliance structures of the Border Security Force and related bodies like the Assam Rifles because no number of microchips and webcams will make a difference as long as those who are using this information are not made equally “smart”.