Floating outposts give BSF strategic edge

Hasnabad (West Bengal), Feb 23 (IANS) The thought of spending time on a vessel in the picturesque and dense Sundarbans may sound enchanting, but getting stuck mid-river for weeks guarding the frontier under hot and humid conditions in a floating border outpost (FBOP) is indeed tough.

The indigenously built FBOPs, armed with modern surveillance equipment and high tech communication systems, give the paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF) a strategic advantage across the India-Bangladesh riverine border - considered one of the most porous in the world.

The FBOPs, each manned by a 34-strong crew, are called the "eyes and ears" of the BSF.

The BSF has deployed three FBOPs - Sagar, Durga and Kamakhya - maintaining a strong presence on the international boundary that criss-crosses the world's largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, passing through a channel of rivers Kalindi, Ichhamati, Raimangal and Hariabhanga.

The BSF recently invited mediapersons from India and Bangladesh to spend a night on the floating vessels to acquaint them with their functioning.

"Besides protecting the Sundarbans and checking infiltration and smuggling, the FBOPs give us a strategic edge. Greatly enhancing manoeuvrability and access, the FBOPs have enabled us to effectively man the riverine border which actually is a tough job," BSF Deputy Inspector General Arvinder Singh told IANS.

"Equipped with latest communication equipment, including a GPS navigator and echo sounder, the vessels also act as guards for the ships passing through the region. They also are very effective during rescue and relief missions in case of any calamity," Arvinder Singh added.

Based at T-Junction, Sagar and Shamsernagar on the Ichamati river, the FBOPs, supported by fast patrol boats, act as floating check points, routinely inspecting ships and boats to and from Bangladesh for illegal immigrants, livestock, drugs and currency.

Designed and built by Mazagon Dock Limited, the 34.50 metre-long vessels come with 2x224 KW Cummins engines and have a maximum speed of 8.5 knots.

With a capacity of 60 tonnes of fresh water and 15 tonnes of fuel, a floating BOP operates at the sea for three weeks on a stretch before moving out for refuelling to Hasnabad - the last Indian land mass that shares border with Bangladesh, beyond which the riverine stretch starts.

The Hasnabad border outpost, equipped with infrastructure to carry out basic training as well as a few refresher courses, is immensely significant to the water wing of the BSF. The water wing's main training centre, though, is located in Punjab.

"You may find it quite adventurous, but life inside the FBOPs is full of hardships. Stuck mid-river for days under hot and humid conditions, no TV and very poor cellular connectivity, at times life seems very difficult," a trooper told IANS, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

"But the fact that we are the country's first line of defence and the security of the border depends on us is big enough a motivation for us," he added.

India shares a 4,095 kilometre-long border with Bangladesh, including the longest 2,216 km in West Bengal. It comprises 154 km of international river borders, 64 km of which pass through the common heritage Sundarbans.

One of the most heavily populated frontiers in the world, the Indo-Bangladesh border is plagued by infiltration and smuggling.

And, with smugglers and infiltrators now steadily taking the river route, the role of floating BOPs has assumed greater significance. With fast patrol boats at quick disposal, we can pursue and check any suspicious looking ship or vessel," Sub-inspector S.K. Das told IANS.

"The floating BOPs also help in coordinating with our pickets set across the river banks and keep a track of all movement near the border," Das added.

Having proved their mettle and becoming an integral part of the scheme, six more floating BOPs are in the process of being inducted into the BSF.

"The formalities have begun for inducting six more BOPs here, and we are hopeful of getting them soon," BSF Inspector General Sandeep Salunke told IANS.

(Anurag Dey can be contacted at anurag.d@ians.in)