If you look beyond the Rs 5.04 lakh crore allocated to the army, navy and air force for modernisation, sustenance or pensions, the budget for defence in 2022-23 highlights three agencies and their growing roles at three major borders, varying in length and nature. The first is Indian Coast Guard (ICG), which patrols and polices the longest among these three borders — India’s coastline, running into over 7,500 km.
The next comes Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which is responsible for developing roads, bridges and other infrastructure on land borders that India shares with her neighbours. According to records of the ministry of home affairs, India has 15,106.7 km land border.
The third and the smallest of the three is Directorate General of Defence Estates (DGDE), which is responsible for borders enclosing about 18 lakh acres of India’s defence land parcels.
The documents of the Union Budget 2022, which was presented on Tuesday, show that ICG was granted a hike of 39 per cent in its total budgetary estimates as compared to the previous financial year. The hike is higher at 60 per cent, if only the capital budget of ICG is considered.
The BRO — an organisation under the defence ministry – witnessed a hike of 40 per cent to Rs 3,500 crore.
The custodian of defence land, DGDE, saw a hike of over 1,100 per cent in budgetary estimates to Rs173.03 crore from just Rs13.80 crore in the previous fiscal.
The overall capital budget of the defence ministry (civil) covering ICG, BRO and DGDE among other heads, saw a jump of 55.60 per cent.
Why the focus on these organisations
A robust defence budget is meant to arm the army, navy and air force — with modern arms, ammunition and equipment, as well as for their sustenance — whose primary task is external border protection.
So what exactly explains the hike in the budgets of the ICG, BRO and DGDE, which support the military? Among other things, it perhaps explains three priority areas of the central government — enhanced coastal security, better border infrastructure and protection of defence land from encroachment.
Arming the Coast Guard
Let’s look at ICG first. The organisation, which observed its 46th Raising Day on Tuesday, has 158 ships and 70 aircraft but seeks to achieve a target of 200 surface platforms and 80 aircraft by 2025.
After 2008, ICG was tasked to further strengthen and close all gaps in the coastal security network of the country, unscrupulous exploitation of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as well as law and order at sea.
According to the defence ministry, ICG maintains a vigil at the EEZ by deploying 50 ships and 12 aircraft daily. It is actively preventing smuggling through maritime routes, has seized drugs worth Rs 4,000 crore in the last one year and apprehended 40 foreign crew and seven boats for illegal activities.
A parliamentary standing committee on defence in 2011 took note of the need for a comprehensive Coast Guard Perspective Plan 2012-27, which will take into account operational deployment plan vis-à-vis statutory duties, current threat perception and national security scenario, infrastructure support facility requirement for optimum utilisation of operational assets and manpower requirement.
This procurement plan will assume a greater significance when the maritime theatre command comes up and if the ICG’s assets are subsumed into it.
In 2019, the defence ministry took the significant step of empowering ICG by according it powers to board, search vessels and also arrest people for offences in the maritime regions of the country, including in ships passing through EEZ.
Last year, the indigenously-designed advanced light helicopters (ALH) Mk-III were inducted into ICG, which aims to have 16 helicopters by the middle of this year. Plans are also afoot to further strengthen National Command Control Communications and Intelligence Network (NC3I Network), which links 51 naval and Coast Guard stations, located along the coast and on island territories.
The initiatives are likely to get a further impetus with the budget hike, and reflects the government’s intent in strengthening the force for a robust coastal security.
BRO in the limelight
Next is BRO. It’s not a surprise that the budget of the organisation saw a massive hike. That is primarily because the organisation has seen a consistent jump in its budget from 2017-18 from a more or less stagnant allocation in previous years.
Moreover, it is no secret that BRO is more in the limelight now than ever, particularly after India’s military standoff with China. The organisation has determinedly worked on constructing roads, bridges, tunnels and other allied infrastructure in eastern Ladakh and the Northeast, close to Line of Actual Control, and also in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir bordering Pakistan, among others.
Many of these projects are of high strategic importance and will cut short the distance to the borders for Indian troops, in case of a contingency. In as early as December 2021, defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated 27 new roads and bridges constructed by BRO, several of them close to India’s borders with China.
Moving towards monetising defence land
When it comes to DGDE, an increase in its capital budgetary estimates reiterates the government’s focus on defence land. One of the ways the government is looking to raise funds for the armed forces is through monetisation of defence land and, for that, it is necessary to save land parcels from encroachment.
In the last three years, the defence ministry conducted a massive survey of 17.78 lakh acres of defence land using modern surveying technologies. In a statement last month, the defence ministry said clear demarcation and boundary survey of defence lands and fixing of the boundaries is necessary for “protection of the defence land, safeguarding of the title of MoD, updated land records, maps and prevention of encroachment”.
While there is still some disagreement within the government and also among the defence services over monetisation of defence land, a larger budget for DGDE will go a long way in the setting up perimeter fencing and boundary pillars around defence land to prevent further encroachment.