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The order was passed taking on record the State's submission that, as a special case, directions will be issued to the concerned officials to issue passes and permit the people stranded at Walayar to cross the border.
The Kerala High Court held a special sitting this afternoon to hear concerns raised regarding the entry of persons coming from other states to Kerala amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The hearing was prompted after hundreds of people seeking trans-border entry into Kerala, coming from states such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, were left stranded at the Walayar check post in Palakkad district on Saturday. The Kerala administration had denied their entry on the ground that they did not register or obtain passes from the Kerala Government.
The State today made detailed submissions on the arrangements in place to allow the entry of persons from across the State borders, while justifying its decision to deny entry to persons at the Walayar check post in the absence of passes issued by the Kerala Government.
The Court noted that, "the present meticulous and stringent restrictions imposed on crossing the borders of State have occurred due to the outbreak of pandemic COVID-19."
The Bench proceeded to observe that "it cannot be said that the restrictive orders and advisories issued are in any manner unreasonable so as to interfere with the fundamental rights enjoyed by the citizens. Looking at that angle it cannot be said that the action of the State officials not permitting the inter-state movement of the people in question is illegal or bad."
All the same, the Court has been assured that the persons stranded in Walayar would be issued passes by the Kerala Government now as a special measure so that they can cross the border into Kerala.
In view of this submission, the Bench of Justices Shaji P Chaly and MR Anitha have directed as follows,
The Court also added that, "It is also made clear that others shall also be issued with the passes at the earliest avoiding unnecessary delay since they are stranded from 9.5.2020 onwards."
The Court, however, emphasised that the persons who are allowed to cross the border must strictly adhere to the lockdown guidelines issued by the Government.
This apart, the Court has also issued the following ancililiary directions:
State Government to ensure that basic facilities are provided to the persons reaching the entry points as is stated in the guidelines specified above and any violations of the same would be viewed by this Court strictly;
Kerala State authorities have to co-ordinate with officials of other State Governments with respect to the passes issued for inter-state travel so as to have parity of dates and other requirements in order to avoid any inconvenience to the movement of the people in future;
With respect to concerns that there are a group of people including 13 students who are stranded in a forest near Malahalla checkpost, although it is not an entry point, the Court has urged the State authorities to "adequately attend to the said matter so as to avoid any inconvenient situation."
These directions are issued taking into account the special circumstances mentioned above and this order cannot be treated as a precedent for any future purposes.
The Bench also added,
The Court was hearing a PIL filed by a practicing lawyer on the issue, which it took up with the suo motu case kept pending to hear concerns that may arise in the State of Kerala amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Appearing for the petitioner-lawyer, Advocate George Poonthottam told the Court that the people stranded at Walayar held passes issued by the host state and that they were unable to obtain passes from the Kerala Government's online portal as the system was down.
Poonthottam said that the people stranded, now accommodated by the Coimbatore administration at guesthouse facilities, included students, workers who had lost their jobs, people who were forcefully evicted and pregnant women.
If they are told to go back by the Kerala Government on grounds that they do not have passes, "where will they go? Who else will provide for them?" Poonthattam asked.
He added that he was not disputing the wisdom of the Kerala Government in acting amid the present pandemic. However, he asserted that the matter requires examination from a "human perspective", rather than a legal perspective.
While rebutting these submissions, AAG Ranjith Tampan told the Court that the Kerala Government has reiterated time and again that only those with valid passes and proper registration with the Kerala Government will be allowed to cross the border into Kerala.
He pointed out that while the Kerala Government has been able to effectively fight against COVID-19 and flatten its curve, "This will go in one or two days if vigil is let loose."
He informed the Court that there is a monitoring system in place with the participation of local self-governments which are to ensure that there are sufficient institutional quarantine facilities to accommodate persons coming from across the border.
He added that there were counters in all entry check points and that persons crossing the border were first taken to local hospitals. Health workers and motor vehicle workers have been engaged to help in the process of monitoring.
While this is the case, the AAG asserted that this monitoring system will be thrown to the bin if people are allowed to cross the border without the requisite passes. In the absence of the same, there will be no way to verify which zone (red/orange/green) such persons are coming from, he added.
Persons seeking to cross the border must have passes issued by the Kerala government by registering through the NORKA or e-Jagratha online portal, he said.
He further clarified that spot registration facilities are only meant for emergency purposes, such as medical emergency situations, or for mirgant labourers crossing the borders every day/week.
In this backdrop, he told the Court, "From today onwards, the stand of the Govt is that no persons without proper registration/pass will be permitted."
The AAG also disputed the submission that the e-portal of the Kerala Government for obtaining passes was down. Advocate Poonthottam, however, stood by his submission.
The Kerala High Court, however, observed these factual issues are no longer relevant since the State Government is willing to allow the entry of the stranded persons upon their registration and procurement of valid passes.
The Bench proceeded to remark that the Kerala Government is taking these steps in the larger public interest, and that it is not anyone's case that the State is prejudiced against any person.
The State Government is only insisting that the persons seeking entry into Kerala from other States have a pass from both the host state and the Kerala Government, the Bench observed.
"Is it not a reasonable restriction?" Justice Chaly queried, "Taking into account the emergent situation, you will have to cooperate."
He further observed that it is not as if the other States were throwing out people. He added that just because Kerala has flattened the COVID-19 curve, it does not mean other people are facing more difficulties in other States.
Justice Chaly observed that while people should be allowed to return, the Kerala Government may take some time to regulate their safe return.
"We will have to take into consideration the larger public interest. They (Kerala Government) is not against anybody", the Court noted.
During the hearing, the Court was also told that a group of people including 13 students were stranded in a forest area at Malahalla. The Court noted that it cannot issue any order on the issue as it is up to the State Government to take call. However, he asked the State to look into the issue and ascertain what the situation is.
The matter has been posted to be taken up again on May 12, Tuesday.