December 27, 2004
In the Robert Frost poem, the narrator’s neighbour tells him “good fences make good neighbours”, but he asks, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out”. In the case of the barbed wire fence that has been constructed on the Line of Control (LoC), no one appears to have asked this question.
Now that the first summer after the fencing was constructed is over and high altitude mountain passes leading to the Kashmir Valley have closed, it is time to evaluate the efficacy of this fence. Designed to keep bad neighbours out and our own misguided youth in, it appears to be fulfilling neither function successfully. It has been reported that approximately two-thirds of the 740-km LoC has been fenced. The fencing comprises double strands of barbed wire which is electrified at night.
It is axiomatic that for a military obstacle system to be effective, it must be “covered” by small arms fire. This means that overlapping arcs of rifle or machine gun fire must deny the intruders the ability to approach the obstacle and breach it at leisure. In conventional warfare, wire fencing is used as an obstacle in conjunction with systematically planted landmines to prevent the enemy from reaching the bunkers comprising the first line of defence in a single rush. Both types of obstacles are invariably covered by small arms as well as artillery fire.
A small group of well-trained mercenary terrorists, suitably equipped, is unlikely to take more than a few minutes to cross the fence safely if not challenged. The fencing has been mostly constructed at some distance from the LoC. These areas have virtually no troops; hence, it must be patrolled very frequently throughout the day and night. It is difficult to find troops for this as almost all the available infantry battalions are already deployed for counter-insurgency operations. Even if it could be done, the risk of infiltrators waiting quietly for a patrol to pass before breaking through the fence will remain. Static obstacle systems have never stopped determined intruders. Even the Maginot Line and the Bar Lev line were breached.
Lighting is another grey area. It is well known that J&K is woefully short of power. The voltage of the power supplied in the state is so low that there is a barrack room joke that you have to light a candle to see if a bulb is on. The fence has been electrified with diesel-electric generator power. This is not only expensive but can be supplied only intermittently as generators often breakdown at high altitudes. Also, as the terrain is rugged, there are many gaps that cannot be fenced. By all accounts there has been only a marginal decline in infiltration levels this year despite the clean chit given to General Musharraf by several ministers. Encounters between infiltrators and army battalions and Rashtriya Rifles units deployed in the second tier are still taking place at distances that are as much as 10 to 15 km from the LoC. If the success ratio in intercepting infiltrators crossing the LoC has been relatively better, it is because of the hand-held thermal imaging devices for night vision and some other surveillance systems which the troops now have. Clearly then, the fence has failed.
It has been estimated that the fencing has cost the exchequer between Rs 25 to 30 lakh per km, which means an overall expenditure of over Rs 200 crore. A fairly large portion of the fence will not survive the first winter as in the upper reaches it will be buried under eight to 10 feet of snow. This will make the barbed wire brittle and electrical short circuits will burn many patches. Since about 30 to 40 per cent of the fence will need to be replaced, it will mean a recurring expenditure of Rs 70 to 80 crore every summer — a major drain on the army’s already stretched budget.
The only possible gain that may have been considered worthwhile by planners is that such a fence would eventually give a semblance of strategic finality to the LoC as an international border. If this was the real motivation, the fence should have been built on or fairly close to the LoC and not at a distance of 3 to 5 km or more away from it. Hence, it clearly emerges that the fence has no military utility and its construction is bad strategy and poor tactics. Surely battalion and brigade commanders are not so gullible that they could not have visualised this scenario before the fence was constructed. Why then did they acquiesce to an almost useless obstacle built at considerable effort and expense that has further divided the lands of villagers harried by 15 years of daily curfew?
The reports from the field are that local commanders had no say, as the orders came from the very top in army headquarters. It would be in the national interest to find out who gave these orders and whose men got the contracts. Parliament must inquire into whether another scam has been perpetrated on the nation.
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