The covid-19 outbreak has sparked an interstate dispute over the ‘right to the highway’. With growing concern over the rapid rise of cases in Kerala, neighbouring Karnataka had closed all roads across the Dakshina Kannada, Kodagu and Mysuru districts.
Subsequently, the Kerala high court passed an order directing Karnataka to lift the ban. On Friday, the B.S. Yeddiyurappa-led government challenged the Kerala high court order before the Supreme Court. In response, the SC asked the Centre to settle the dispute.
Kerala has recorded 286 positive coronavirus cases as of 3 April.
The closure of the highways was fuelled by Kerala’s decision to try and admit covid-19 patients in Mangaluru and Mysuru cities of Karnataka. This is because the Kerala districts that border Karnataka are thought to have underdeveloped health infrastructure.
“It would not have been a problem if only a patient and a relative had come, but the ambulances carried several people along with the patients. This makes the situation worse for Mangaluru. That is why we took the decision of closing all entry roads from Kasargod," said Mangaluru MP Nalin Kumar Kateel.
District authorities of Dakshina Kannada also closed all roads leading to Mangaluru. “However, supply trucks from both sides are allowed through the highway," clarified deputy commissioner Sindhu Rupesh.
Three talukas that share borders with Kerala have dumped mud and boulders along major district roads and parts of state highways to restrict movement on the stretches.
The Kerala government was obviously not happy with the turn of events.
“It is a direct attack on the federal structure," said Kasargod MP Rajmohan Unnithan, who filed a writ petition in the SC to direct Karnataka to open roads between Kasargod and Mangaluru.
“State governments cannot decide on closure of a highway. It is in violation of Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of movement, food and medical treatment."
D.V. Sadananda Gowda, Union minister for fertilizers and chemicals who is from Karnataka, urged for some “perspective". “We cannot risk the possibilities of tertiary infections spreading in Karnataka from north Malabar districts. I have already told the Kerala chief minister not to press for the opening of the highway and inner roads to Karnataka," he said.
Gowda, who has been put in charge of Kerala by the Narendra Modi government to manage the covid-19 outbreak, added: “Once the coronavirus threat is mitigated in the country, we will strive for normalizing the situation between Karnataka and Kerala."
In normal times, Mangaluru has been a popular destination for the residents of Kasargod and Kannur in Kerala, as it has a number of bars, pubs and a vibrant nightlife. Young people from Kerala also frequently visit Mangaluru during the weekends. Investors from Kerala have also built hospitals, schools and hotels here.
Kerala Samajam’s Mangaluru chapter, which has the largest membership of Malayalees outside the state, said the closure of roads would affect the sociocultural relationship between the two states.
“We had been pressing the Kerala government for improving the health infrastructure in Kasargod and Kannur, but there was no pressure from the people of Kasargod despite copious Gulf money flowing into the region," said T.K. Rajan, president of the Kerala Samajam.
M. Raghuram is a freelance journalist based out of Mangaluru.