Walling the Borders


Good fences make good neighbours, it is said, but countries can have different experiences when it comes to fencing their borders. Even the US, the world’s wealthiest, most powerful nation, is in the midst of a bitter political slugfest over having a foolproof border with its southern neighbour Mexico. President Donald Trump had promised a “big, beautiful wall” to his voters; it would be 25-30 feet high and “99.9 percent effective” at stopping Mexican drug traffickers, gun runners, murderers and rapists from sneaking into the US and causing mayhem there. The cost? No more than 25 billion dollars, which Trump said Mexico would fork out. When that did not happen, it was assumed he would slap stiff additional tariffs on Mexican imports to pay for the wall. The US Congress, even when both its Houses were Republican dominated, was cool to Trump’s proposal seeking an initial down payment of 5 billion dollars for his wall. With the Lower House now firmly under Democrat control and pushing back on Trump’s demand, a bruising shutdown has affected part of the government. Trump has been upping the ante, warning that he would use the military to build the wall, or declare national emergency as a last resort. Critics are ready to call Trump’s bluff, pointing out that there is no way he can go ahead with the wall (or even a steel fence) without congressional approval; using the military to build a security wall would also violate rules governing defence appropriations. While Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi has denounced Trump’s proposed wall as “immoral, expensive, unwise”, he has retaliated by pointedly asking why “wealthy politicians” build walls around their homes.

“They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside,” said Trump, playing to the gallery. A part of his electorate has responded, decrying the Democrat’s offer to fund just 1.3 billion dollars for border security as not even sufficient to build a “medium-sized, ugly, cattle fence” along the nearly 2,000 mile long border with Mexico. They point to the border wall Hungary has built to successfully block refugees from the Middle East, the barrier erected on the Iraqi border by Saudi Arabia to prevent infiltration by the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda, or Israel’s 436-mile-long ‘separation fence’ at West Bank to keep out Palestinian attackers.

But are border walls as effective as made out to be? The Berlin wall may have been brought down in 1989, but many more have been built by countries since then. Almost 70 such projects are ongoing, including the world’s longest one for 2,500 miles between India and Bangladesh. There is a school of thought that claims walls are simply not effective to keep people out, because they will keep finding ways and means to go over, under or around them. As every homeowner knows, walls are costly to build — but for a country’s leadership, walls are useful politically and electorally as visible symbols to reassure their people that something is getting done.

Authoritarian regimes as in North Korea and erstwhile East Germany have also found border walls useful for another reason — to keep their populations in! For military circles, walls have always been a defensive construct to keep out invaders and protect territory; however, they see walls as more a delaying obstacle backed by a strong force to fight insurgents or keep warring groups separate. The real challenge is to constantly monitor the wall and keep it strong. Even the Israeli army, with all its technological prowess, finds it hard to keep watch on just a 45-mile fenced strip in restive Gaza, compared to more prosperous and therefore comparatively peaceful West Bank, it has been pointed out. If it is about two hostile neighbouring countries, the lasting solution is still to negotiate and find political meeting ground. As per UN estimates, wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan and other places have displaced around 66 million people; daily on average, 44,000 people flee their homes because of conflict and persecution.

With the Earth heating up, environmental refugees would aggravate the problem manifold. For India too, such a scenario could bear watching in case a part of Bangladesh gets submerged by a rising Bay of Bengal to push millions northwards. Between US and Mexico, the truth is that one-third of the border on the American side, particularly the populated areas, is already fenced with primary fencing of steel pickets along with secondary fencing of horizontal steel tubes, mesh and sheeting; there are natural barriers like the Rio Grande over which no fencing is possible, along with stretches of American Indian reservation lands. Guards patrol long stretches of the border using drones, ground sensors and cameras for IT-enabled surveillance. As for India, more has been invested in the barrier along the Line of Control in Kashmir to prevent infiltration by jehadis from the Pakistani side. However, India’s border with Bangladesh has remained a work in progress after donkey’s years. Improved relations with Sheikh Hasina-led Bangladesh and India has made it possible to tackle cross border crime, though cow smuggling still goes on in large numbers.

Demographic invasion into India has caused intractable problems in border States, particularly in Tripura and Assam. Yet there is still not enough power for floodlights along border fences, even as the Centre mulls ‘smart walls’ with lasers and sensors. Considering the strife over aliens grabbing land, cornering welfare benefits and getting into electoral rolls to send their representatives to the assemblies, New Delhi cannot afford to take it easy on border management while seeking closer economic engagement with Dhaka.