Three couples recount their journey from other states to Kerala and explain the procedures on reaching the borders.

Help desk at Kerala check posts for interstate travellers
Coronavirus Lockdown Sunday, May 10, 2020 - 10:02

It was May 6 (Wednesday), the sun had turned the clouds red and the highway air just off Bengaluru city was nippy, recalls 28-year-old Shweta Nair. The Bengaluru-based Human Resources professional and her fiancé Gireesh had decided to ride back home on their bike to Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala and hit the deserted highway on early Wednesday morning.

“We got all our travel clearances and kept the papers ready. This journey was exciting initially as we had finally hit the great outdoors after two months of quarantine. I was looking forward to going home,” Shweta tells TNM.

However, their long trip ahead was difficult and filled with challenges.

Since March 24, India’s lockdown to contain COVID-19 had kept the traffic off the roads and emptied highways, until state governments slowly opened up borders to allow natives working in other states to return home.

To Shweta, the road to Kerala looked like a steel carpet, stretched out invitingly. And the clusters of shops along the service roads were shut. But despite the good weather and empty roads, this journey felt rather unsettling.

“It was unusually quiet. We were outside, exposed and vulnerable, when most of the world was shut indoors to try and escape a pandemic,” Shwetha adds.

Crowded check post

Along with a family of four, who were travelling in their car, Shweta and Gireesh rode out of Karnataka in the morning without any incident, and then entered Tamil Nadu. The scenic roads took them past Krishnagiri, Salem, Coimbatore and then finally into Kerala via Palakkad by 2 pm.

It was at Palakkad’s Walayar check-post that the duo felt the major brunt of COVID-19 checks and restrictions, imposed by the government of Kerala. Shweta says that the group, which included a one-year-old, waited three hours just to cross 100 metres and finally enter their home state.

“It was unbearably hot and there were so many cars parked and waiting to cross the border. There were people everywhere. Scores of people were crossing the border on foot. People were waiting on this side of the check-post. They were having frantic conversations with the officials. These people may have been barred from crossing over for reasons unknown,” she adds.

For those who wished to cross over to Kerala from neighbouring states, a travel pass issued via NORKA Roots or COVID-19 Jagratha — state government portals — is required. These passes need to be furnished at the state borders, where health officials check individual details of the travellers and record their temperature with non-contact infrared thermometers.

If any individual reported a high temperature or could not furnish a pass, they would be barred from entering the state. Ambulances were parked at every check-post to take those who are denied entry back to the state borders.

Sadly, in such a situation, these people are caught between two state borders, as they cannot go back to the place they began their journey from without a pass issued by the government of that state.

At the Walayar check-post, Shweta says, each of them had to step out of the car and queue up at the counters to answer questions and get their temperature checked.

“There wasn’t exactly a system of physical distancing at these counters. Although everyone wore masks, people were clustered around the booths to provide details of their travel. All of us, including the baby, had to get down. It was a bit scary and the process felt inconsistent as it took much longer to clear some people,” Shweta adds.

The checks at Tamil Nadu border

Bengaluru resident Hitha V also agrees that the inter-state drive was scary. She had travelled to Thiruvananthapuram from Karnataka on May 7, a day after Gireesh and Shweta had. Hitha says that she and her husband had rushed home to Kerala to meet their younger son, who was stuck with his grandparents due to the lockdown. The couple,  however, took the shorter route crossing Salem, Dindigul, Nagercoil and directly entering Thiruvananthapuram via the Injivila check-post, one of the six entry points into Kerala.

“Most of our journey was through Tamil Nadu and despite the high number of cases, there was no stringent checking within the state. Of course, they would check our papers at each town, but there were zero temperature checks. That happened finally in Nagercoil, during the second half of our journey,” Hitha adds.

“The checkpoint at Nagercoil was crowded and it made me feel a bit uneasy as we had been in quarantine the whole of the last one and a half months,” her husband says. However, he adds that things were exceptionally smooth at every check-point in Kerala. “The most time we took was when we had to fill up two forms to travel within Kerala at the Injivila check-post,” he explains.

For this couple, the biggest challenge was possibly the lack of access to safe restrooms.

“I didn’t use restrooms at petrol pumps as I was scared. I did not want to risk it. So I took a bathroom break once and then only after reaching my in-laws' house in Thiruvananthapuram,” Hitha adds.

Quarantine centre in Kerala

On May 6, Chennai-based Rajeesh Rajagopal and wife Athira drove down to Irinjalakuda in Thrissur. However, their nightmare began after they reached their house in Kerala on the same evening.

“While parking my car, I got a Twitter alert, which said that the Kerala Chief Minister had mandated institutional quarantine for everyone coming from Red Zones. Chennai was a Red Zone. And soon enough, we got calls from the municipality and were taken to a quarantine centre,” Rajeesh tells TNM.

The 31-year-old techie and his wife, too, had hurried to Thrissur to reunite with their one-year-old child who was stuck for months with Athira’s parents during the lockdown. The couple, however, barely got to spend a few hours with their child, before being whisked off to a quarantine centre by local health officials.

To make matters worse, both the centres they were shifted to late in the night was unhygienic and had sub-par facilities, with no proper food, alleges Rajeesh.

“We were shifted to a tourist home in Chalakudy at 2 am. This place had rat droppings across the floor and the bathroom. The place hadn’t been swept well and we only had bread and bananas for dinner. It almost felt like we were criminals and not quarantined people,” Rajeesh had earlier disclosed to TNM.

Following several requests, the duo was shifted to a clean and air-conditioned facility closer to home in Irinjalakuda a day later.

An avoidable journey

While Rajeesh and Athira were whisked off to an unhygienic quarantine centre in the wee hours of May 7, an exhausted Shwetha and Gireesh finally reached their respective houses in Thiruvananthapuram city after what felt like a million (although necessary) checks. Hitha and her husband, too, reunited with their son after the difficult road trip the following day. But post their adventures, all three couples agree that their journey home was risky and definitely uncertain.

“We would never have considered this trip if not for our son,” Hitha tells TNM.

“We weren’t sure whether we would reach home or be taken to a quarantine centre on the way. Honestly, unless it is a real emergency, I believe this journey isn’t worth the risk and effort,” Shweta adds.

Read:

Kerala govt to follow complete lockdown on Sundays: List of what’s permitted

Kerala mandates 14-day institutional quarantine for those coming from red zones

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