The contrasting examples of the relations between Kerala and its two neighbours, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, during the COVID-19 pandemic, illustrate the human and economic costs of state governments refusing to work with each other, and the benefits of mutual cooperation. Kerala and Karnataka have been embroiled in a dispute since 21 March, when the latter announced that it was closing all road crossings between the states. The decision blocked access for residents from north Kerala’s Kasaragod district to visit Mangaluru, in Karnataka, where the nearest well-equipped hospital is located. The consequences were grave, leading to the death of at least ten patients who were unable to receive urgent medical attention.
The dispute between the two states also led to a complete halt to the road trade between the two states, hurting both farmers and consumers. The blocking of trade and transport between the states can also result in other far-reaching consequences, such as a food inflation due to the restrictions on free trade. Meanwhile, the cooperation between the governments of Tamil Nadu and Kerala has helped both migrant labourers, who were stuck in Kerala during the nationwide lockdown, and allowed for businesses and trade to continue functioning smoothly.
On 21 March, the Dakshina Kannada district administration of Karnataka blocked National Highway 66 at the Talapady checkpost between Mangaluru and Kasaragod in Kerala by dumping truckloads of mud on road. The state government took the decision after six patients tested positive for COVID-19 in Kasaragod, which was then declared one of the ten hotspots of the pandemic by the central government. Two dozen other entry points into Karnataka from Kerala were also closed in a similar manner. On 28 March, a terminally ill patient from Kasaragod died after her ambulance was stopped en route to a hospital in Mangaluru. On the same day Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of Kerala, wrote to the prime minister asking the central government for quick intervention to end the road blockade.
On 1 April, the Kerala High Court directed the central government to “ensure that the blockades put up Karnataka is removed.” The court was of the view that “any further delay could entail loss of precious lives of our citizens.” By then seven patients had died trying to reach Mangaluru due to the road blockade, exceeding the total number of deaths Kerala has had from COVID-19—two so far. This is despite the state having India’s first reported case of COVID-19 cases as early as 30 January.
The Karnataka government refused to lift the blockade, which BS Yediyurappa, the state’s chief minister, said would mean “embracing death.” Yediyurappa made the comment in the wake of panic about people from Kerala filling up the limited medical facilities in southern Karnataka. The Karnataka government challenged the Kerala High Court’s order before the Supreme Court. On 7 April the Supreme Court disposed of the case after Tushar Mehta, the solicitor general, said the central government had facilitated talks between the chief secretaries of the two states and solved the issue.