Grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, but on this side of the 4,095-km-long Indo-Bangladesh border, it is strong enough to shield a concrete-and-metal fence from men armed with pliers and steel cutters.
Since 1989, New Delhi has spent over Rs 4,500 crore on a barbed-wire fence to protect India's eastern frontier from infiltrators, smugglers and jihadis. Nearly two decades later, border sentinels realised it was the fence that needed more protection. So they turned to a grass called bamboo.
Into its third phase, the Indo-Bangladesh Border fencing project is being executed by the National Buildings Construction Corporation Ltd. That, however, has not stopped the 63rd and 93rd battalions of the Border Security Force in southern Assam's Barak Valley from fortifying 40 km of the fence with bamboo strips.
Assam shares 272 km of the border with Bangladesh. Of this, the Barak Valley stretch, 128 km long, is highly sensitive because of influx and movements of militants, jihadis, cattle and contraband smugglers. Houses and markets kissing the fence often hamper vigilance in this thickly populated sector.
The BSF defends the bamboo strategy. According to inspector general (Tripura-Mizoram Frontier) S.N. Tiwari, sturdy species of bamboo invariably used as posts in rural housing are being tied on the fence. "These species have to be hacked or sawed repeatedly for miscreants to eventually breach the fence. The sound is bound to attract the attention of the sentinels, each of whom covers 300-500 yards," he said.
Miscreants on either side of the border have been snipping off the barbed wires to smuggle in Bangladeshis and smuggle out cattle and other commodities. Blind spots – wooded bends and obstructions by man-made structures close to the fence – often help them hoodwink the border guards at night.
Few officials said the BSF has either been using bamboo growing along the fence or buying it from villagers. The species locally called jai sells at Rs 50 apiece while the sturdier barua variety comes for Rs 60 each. "It's not a heavy price to pay for better security," an officer said.
Foolproof security, though, has been eluding the sector mainly due to a large unfenced stretch. Some 54 km of the border in south Assam's Karimganj district is yet to be taken up, as locals resent being "fenced out". A part of Karimganj town, for instance, would be divided if India cannot skirt a 1974 agreement with Dhaka requiring the fence to be erected 150 metres from the Zero Line separating the two countries.
Incidentally, bamboo also comes in handy for drug dealers to smuggle out heroin and high-codeine, intoxicating cough syrups such as Phensedyl to Bangladesh. The smugglers stash their stuff in the hollow of the bamboo, seal the two ends and slide it through the fence for couriers on the other side to collect.
"We have caught a few of these smugglers. But with 3.5-5 km between two border outposts, each with a strength of 10-14 men, it's often an uphill task," said a BSF officer.