All the action from the first-ever India-Bangladesh joint drill in the riverine borders of the Sundarbans
Yogesh Rajput | March 30, 2016 | (Photo: Courtesy BSF)
In March this year, the Indian government banned Phensedyl (a cough syrup) along with over 300 other drugs. Though the move came as a major setback for a number of pharmaceuticals, it happened to be a long-pending welcome step towards strengthening India-Bangladesh relations.
Phensedyl was already banned in Bangladesh but continued to be sold in India. The medicine contains an opiate, named codeine, and was a major form of substance abuse among addicts. As its trafficking into Bangladesh was becoming a major worry for security forces of both sides, Bangladesh had been long urging its neighbour to put a ban on the cough syrup.
Another effort to enhance cooperation between the two countries was made in the same month. A first-ever joint drill – Sundarbans Maitri – was conducted by the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) to sanitise the international border (IB) of the Sundarbans for which we were offered to be audience.
We reached Kolkata, a night before the drill, from where IB was to be nearly a four-hour journey. But first, we had to make a stop at the nearby BSF officers’ mess.
A sturdy officer, in a causal shirt and similar trousers, welcomed us. A handshake with him confirmed his association with the BSF. He briefed us about the scheduled drill and answered our queries. The next day was to start early as we had to cover both land and water to reach IB. So we had a quick dinner and a quicker breakfast.
The officer, with the firm grip, had now gone into his green fatigue. A few minutes after 7 am, a call was made to get moving.
The initial road led us through shanties, dumping grounds, newly-built tall buildings and many others underway, and of course (being Kolkata) playgrounds with youngsters playing football. After a while, only stretches of farm beds ran on either side of the road. Finally after a two-hour travel, our vehicle stopped at Dhamakhali, next to the Kolagachia river. From here we had to take a speedboat.
A short walk through a bustling market led to the bank where four speedboats were lined up. We carefully stepped onto the first and reached the third (our designated ride) by jumping and stumbling.
We put on our life jackets and the boat took off. As the twin propellers at the stern (back of the boat) swayed to turn it in desired directions, the boat left behind a gush of water-stream that subsequently forked at the other end.
This was a different terrain. It was not land, where movement can either be on foot or in a vehicle, but water where only a boat comes handy and swimming (to reach the destination) is not a viable option. Thus, challenges for a paramilitary force such as BSF can be many.
Normally, a speedboat can reach up to a speed of 100 km/h. We did not opt to move close to the driver to peep at the speedometer and disturb him. Thus, let us assume that the boat was moving close to hundred. But slowly we realised it no longer was. As said, challenges for BSF can be many and can arrive anytime, anywhere, even inside a boat.
A speedboat usually has two drivers who take turns at the wheel. There is no seat for them but a wooden plank to stand on. As the boat continued to sail at a slower pace, a co-driver went to the stern where one of the propellers was struggling to move the boat forward. With one foot out of the boat, he removed the cover panel of the motor above the weary propeller. Apparently, a filter was unable to push oil into the motor. The driver tried fixing the problem for the next 20 minutes, but in vain. The boat had now started giving signs of a breakdown. The motors were now switched off and we stood in the middle of the muddy river like helpless persons left alone on an unknown planet. We though managed to reach near the bank and found some locals for help.
Meanwhile, an officer present in the boat tried calling up his senior at IB to inform him about the situation. But he couldn’t find any signal – another challenge. After repeated failed attempts, we offered our phone which had luckily caught the network. “Sir, our boat has stopped working…”
A woman, clad in a mud-washed printed saree, came near our immobile boat to offer us drinking water amidst the enormous water body surrounding us. The kids watched us in amazement as we involuntarily became their source of entertainment. As we waited for things to happen, a bare-chested man clicked our photograph in his mobile phone – in that rare moment, we, the journalists, had become the subject of a report.
The officer concluded the conversation with his senior and started blaming the drivers for our state. “Both of you are newbies, at least one driver should have been experienced. The motor could have been fixed then.” A few more recurring attacks and the self-esteem of a co-driver got hit; he got up and once again made an attempt to fix the engine. This time, however, he took out a pen and pushed its nib onto some parts of the motor. And voila! the motor started. The pen, yet again, proved to be mightier than the sword! No wonder BSF gives importance to pens. The uniform of BSF personnel has special pockets, on the arms, to stick pens in. Even the BSF vehicle we were travelling in had small pockets specially stitched on the back of the seat covers to hold pens. “It is convenient,” Sandeep Salunke, inspector general, South Bengal Frontier, BSF, had later told us when we showed curiosity.
With the boat back in its habitual speed, we soon reached the international border that passes through a channel of rivers named Kalindi, Ichamati, Raimangal and Haribhanga. The drill had started. The BSF had received secret information that a cargo ship, with criminal elements, was to pass through the border. Acting on the tip-off, both Indian and Bangladeshi patrolling boats carrying heavily armed personnel beset the cargo ship, forcing it to a halt. As the boats revolved around the nearly half a kilometre long ship, alert forces of both the countries inspected it for any illegal material. The drill, though aimed towards a worthy cause, looked rather ceremonial.
Onboard India’s floating border outpost, Salunke and his Bangladeshi counterpart Colonel Khandekar Farid Hassan told us more about the initiative. “You see, this is an international trade route, merchant ships keep passing through every now and then. So there can be multiple ways to pass illegal material or goods to the other side. The aim of the exercise, thus, is to share information and check any sort of criminal element,” said Salunke.
The riverine border running over 1,100 km is porous – cattle, Phensedyl and fake currency have passed through it many times. Earlier, in the boat, an officer had told us about the limitations in keeping a blanket check on the border. “The length of the border itself is a challenge. During my initial posting at IB, cattle used to be trafficked from the Indian side and fake currency from Bangladesh. The rate of occurrence has dropped though,” he said. As per Salunke, there has been a drop of 60-70 percent in cattle smuggling over the past few years. He added that smuggling usually takes place at night, making it all the more difficult to check.
Though there have been reports of possible security threat from terror modules like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (suspected members of the organisation were arrested in March from West Bengal in connection with the 2014 Burdwan blast case), Farid denied any threat of terror organisations. “As of now, we do not have any information that terrorists may be hiding in the Sundarbans area.” Salunke added that the usual criminal activities they encounter are of kidnapping of fishermen and their families.
A swarm of bees kept bugging us at regular intervals as we tried to shoo them away – another challenge of the terrain.
Salunke explained the number of problems BSF personnel face on daily basis. “It is difficult to communicate in this area. Mobile signals are weak and there is little human presence. In such a scenario, troops are almost cut-off from their families. Availability of drinking water is another problem.”
It was late afternoon and we needed to head back. Midway, we were to stop at BSF barracks for lunch.
We got down onto a speedboat and expected to reach land in an hour. However, an hour later we realised we had lost the way. The driver turned the boat back in a hope of finding the destination. But another 20 minutes later, we were still stuck somewhere in the middle of some river. The driver this time turned the boat in a different direction, again in vain. We finally asked some locals for directions after stopping our vehicle near a river bank, and moved on. The challenges, indeed, are many.
At the staff barracks, the lunch had been laid out. But before we could fill our deep-down empty stomachs, we asked an officer for water to wash hands. He took us towards a plastic barrel filled with water. We were disheartened to see the plight of these men who ensure our safety by themselves living in the most difficult of terrains and fighting the enemy; the water could have easily won the award for the ‘best breeding ground for mosquitos’. The officer then took out water, from a nearby pond, which was still usable.
During lunch, an officer came and sat beside us. He asked us about the current trend in national and other politics, and we answered to the best of our knowledge. We asked the officer, who has been in service for nearly 20 years, what it is like to work for the force. Though proud, he brought up some grievances. A major one is the differential treatment meted out to the central armed police forces (CAPF) compared to the defence forces.
This, however, is not new. It has often been debated as to why paramilitary forces (such as CRPF, BSF, ITBP) are not given status and facilities equal to those of the defence forces (army, navy, air force), even when CAPF personnel are deputed in equally difficult conditions and terrains as defence personnel. A BSF jawan, too, fights the enemy in extreme climatic conditions, just like an army jawan. A BSF jawan, too, discharges his duty in rescue and relief operations, just like an army jawan. Yet, he, the BSF jawan, is never honoured with the status of martyrdom in case he is killed while performing duty. The seventh pay commission finally took note of this inequality and in its report last year recommended that in case of death in the line of duty, CAPF personnel too should be accorded martyr status.
Still, the definition of paramilitary (i.e., organised similarly to military) holds true only theoretically. The BSF, a paramilitary force, does not get a special pay on the lines of military service pay (received by defence forces) – a demand which was rejected by the latest pay commission, as it placed CAPF personnel in the same category as that of civil employees.
The officer, sitting next to us, referred to another issue normally talked about within the force. The bosses – officers holding senior positions usually of IG rank and above – come from the IPS cadre. This not only makes opportunities of promotion for junior officers slim, but a sense of complete understanding among senior officers about the force, its working and the condition of personnel remains missing too.
Moreover, it makes an IPS officer somewhat of an outsider. In the past two decades of his service, the officer said he had only climbed a single rank.
With dusk setting in, it was time for us to leave. We came to witness the joint drill but took back with us a lot more. We thanked the officers for their hospitality and in return doubled up our respect for them.
(The article appears in the April 1-15, 2016 issue)
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