Efforts to tighten inter-state borders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced southern states to put up more barriers and in some cases even construct walls, to prevent motorists and residents from freely walking in. Entry and exit points in districts bordering neighbouring states are being plugged rapidly, especially in areas with porous borders. This, even as these states have enjoyed a cordial relationship over the years.
Vellore district in Tamil Nadu is perhaps the most striking example of this, with construction work for the walls at Sainagunta and Ponnai (Maathandakuppam) checkposts beginning on Sunday morning. Three to five feet high, these walls are to prevent all vehicles from entering Vellore from porous checkposts.
While the main roads connecting Vellore to other places in Andhra remain open, and screenings are done for both passes and medical conditions, it has become tough for the police to keenly watch smaller roads.
Policing becomes a gruelling job
Other states too have built walls or blocked roads in multiple ways. The Central government in its lockdown guidelines has strictly prohibited inter-district and inter-state movement. There are only a few exceptions -- people travelling for medical reasons, certain agricultural and related activities and supply of essential goods.
For police in border districts, it has been a gruelling job. Many people have compelling reasons to travel -- a family in another district, aged parents to care for or just not enough money to survive -- but none of these people can be allowed to cross the border.
It is not just Vellore in Tamil Nadu, other districts that share borders including -- Tiruvallur, Krishnagiri, Erode, Salem, Nilgiris, Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Dindigul, Theni, Virudhunagar, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari -- have also made arrangements to set up barricades to prevent unauthorised inter-state movement.
Speaking to TNM, Tiruvallur Superintendent of Police P Aravindhan confirms that the number of police patrolling at the checkposts has been increased in view of the lockdown.
"And on bye-roads where it is not possible for police to stand and there are no checkposts, we have placed thorn bushes to stop people from entering the district," he says. "Smuggling of illicit liquor from Andhra Pradesh has been a major issue for us. They attempt to smuggle the arrack into Tamil Nadu," he explains.
In Krishnagiri meanwhile, there are 31 checkposts with seven interstate posts. Of this, five connect with Karnataka while two connect with Andhra Pradesh. The layers of patrol have been doubled, with another line of police stationed to check who is travelling and the purpose of visit just 200 metres after the first checkpost.
"The borders here are very porous. We have introduced border line patrol as well to see if people are walking through forests or fields," says Krishnagiri SP Bandi Gangadhar. "Most people trying to enter Krishnagiri are residents who went to Maharashtra or Karnataka for work. They are very scared and want to get back to their families. It is an emotional time for them and it is difficult for them to accept logic, but we need to enforce rules," he adds.
Lives divided suddenly
In Telangana, things are more complicated. While the state is having a tough time controlling its numbers, seven districts share borders with Maharashtra -- Kamareddy, Nizamabad, Nirmal, Adilabad, Komram Bheem-Asifabad, Mancherial and Jayashankar-Bhupallapally.
Several people in Telangana along the Maharashtra border have familial ties as locals speak both Telugu and Marathi and also marry into each other's families.
Many turmeric farmers from Maharashtra come to Nizamabad town to sell their produce, while many workers from Telangana travel to the neighbouring state to work in cotton mills.
Telangana also has a large population of workers who migrate to Mumbai for work, often crossing the border near Bhainsa in Nirmal district or Bodhan in Nizamabad district.
These districts were the first places where barricades were put in place, in March itself, before the announcement of the nation-wide lockdown.
As early as March 21, Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao had said, "We share a border of over 500 to 600 km with our neighbouring state Maharashtra, and cases are increasing rapidly over there. So there is a chance that we may get cases from there. We are even thinking about closing the border with Maharashtra as well after talking to the state government there. Even if it sounds harsh, we will do it because it is necessary.â€ť
With cases in Maharashtra increasing significantly, Telangana has tightened patrolling on its borders. Speaking to TNM, Nizamabad Collector Narayana Reddy said, "We have set up four checkposts along the highway, to ensure that there is no movement between the states, except those related to essential services."
When asked about the interior roads in the village through which one can cross the border, he said, "At the village-level, sarpanches are taking initiative and they're checking all those who are entering and leaving their jurisdiction, to ensure that no one crosses the border."
Even in south Telangana, in Jogulamba-Gadwal district, which shares a border with Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, police have been patrolling along the Krishna river and have deployed drones to spot anyone who is trying to cross the border.
As Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh is located just on the other side of the border, authorities are stepping up patrolling to ensure that the state's borders remain sealed.
New cases from outside state
Though initially many states were even blocking people with medical emergencies from crossing the borders, this strategy changed after the tussle between Kerala and Karnataka reached the Supreme Court. Karnataka that had blocked patients from Kannur and Kasargod who were trying to enter Mangaluru, agreed to let non-COVID patients in dire need of medical help. Following this, Kerala and Tamil Nadu too have together to streamline people from Kanyakumari travelling to Thiruvananthapuram for medical treatment.
The worry however is about other people entering the states and then showing symptoms of the virus. For Kerala, the alarm bells started ringing after a few people who had crossed the border from Tamil tested positive.
Idukki district, for example, shares its borders with a few Tamil Nadu districts, including Theni, Thenkasi, Dindigul and Pollachi in Coimbatore.
In view of many from Tamil Nadu testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 in Idukki, the district officials have sealed its four checkposts - Kumily, Cumbom Mettu, Bodimettu and Chinnar.
All 21 connecting roads from Tamil Nadu, too, have been sealed. Forest teams, police teams and revenue teams have been posted at these points to regulate any inter-state movement.
â€śWe have also set up Janakia (peopleâ€™s) committees at ward-level and panchayat-level. If residents spot any new faces in the panchayat, they can inform the committee. The members of these committees will ensure that they are taken to the quarantine facilities. We have quarantined more than 100 such people in these facilities, of which some have been released after the mandatory period,â€ť Idukki District Collector H Dineshan told TNM.
â€śSince the last two weeks, we have allowed critically ill people, pregnant women and families where a death has happened to enter the state, which is less than 100 people,â€ť the Collector added.
The recent COVID-19 cases are not individuals who entered the district through the forest areas or checkposts but by road, the Collector clarified.
â€śThere is no way we can fence the borders, which extends to 50 kms in some regions. The state has to decide on that. Besides, I donâ€™t think Idukki is seeing an influx of people from Tamil Nadu to an extent that it requires fencing,â€ť the Collector added.
In Palakkad, only ambulances are allowed to traverse back and forth as Tamil Nadu has announced a total lockdown in neighbouring district Coimbatore.
The Palakkad district administration has set up six checkposts in Walayar, Gopalapuram, Ozhalapathy, Govindapuram, Chemmanampathy and Nadupuni. An Executive Magistrate and police teams have been deployed at each of these checkposts.
The strength of the police force depends on the number of goods vehicles entering the state. â€śSince most of the good vehicles enter the state via the Walayar checkpost, a huge posse of police is deployed there,â€ť an official from the Palakkad District Administration told TNM.
The checkpost officials check the temperature and other medical conditions of the passengers, accompanying medical staff and drivers when at the border. The goods being transported are also checked.
â€śThe staff of the goods vehicle, including the cleaning staff, change with every trip. So, we have now mandated that the vehicle owners should issue a self-attested certificate that identifies its drivers and other staff for each trip. We have communicated the message through the Lorry Owners Association,â€ť the official said.
Though in the last few days, most district administrations have devised ways to stop inter-state movement, it is going to get tougher after May 3. Indications are that the restrictions will be relaxed for green zones and will remain the same for red zones. But this would also mean more people trying to travel between these zones, adding to the chaos.
(With inputs from Saritha)