Borders around the country remain closed, no matter what the compulsion of those trying to cross them

Any territory around the world, right from a street to a State to a city or a region, has its characteristics. The word “territory” has one of its most common usages in the field of sports and athletics where identities compete from a defined piece of land without having a sovereign status. Thus, it is that Scotland, as a territory, can field a team without having a sovereign status. However, this cannot be the place to resolve these concerns or indeed debate them. The use of the word “territory” in the first sentence of this column is in terms of identity. COVID-19 has changed many things in our world. How many of them will remain altered and how many will relapse to their original form once the virus leaves us is anybody’s guess. However, if one can survive the stress of the possibility of being a Coronavirus suspect and being put in quarantine, then there are some very interesting processes at play.

A former civil servant, who for some reason had to travel by car from Almora to Delhi, thus traversing through the three States of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, expressed genuine anxiety at being stopped, grilled and monitored for the virus at the numerous checkpoints he was bound to pass during his journey. He was quite worried about the possibility of being put into quarantine as reasoning usually does not work in such cases. He was convinced that given the state of mind prevailing around the country regarding the pandemic, even his status as an ex-Secretary of the Government of India would not change anything and he would be put in isolation. And given the horror stories coming out of quarantine centres, one can quite understand his reluctance to be put in one. But that’s another story for another day.

More to the point, for the first time ever, in modern Indian history, State boundaries have acquired the status of a phenomenon. Consider the birth of the concept of the National Capital Region (NCR). The city of NOIDA came up in the late 60s in select sectors, as a retreat for the rich and famous, especially the ruling class in Delhi. Freelancing educational entrepreneurs and others, particularly the three forces, also penetrated NOIDA. It became a “hub” of sorts.

Subsequently, when commercial spaces in Connaught Place, Khan Market, Nehru Place and others started running short, the done thing was to move to Gurgaon, now known as Gurugram. Corporate offices moved to places such as Cyber City, which coincidently had no special “cyber” identity save being a fanciful noun. Many multinational corporations moved their offices there and those who couldn’t get into the cyber bubble, lined up National Highway 8. The Big 4 consulting companies, PriceWaterhouse Coopers, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, and KPMG, were not far behind. Pioneering zeal and everything else in between led the way. The Metro followed and a modest four-lane link between Mehrauli and Gurgaon was created. The price of real estate skyrocketed, with many of the rich and powerful boasting of substantial properties in Gurugram. It became a centre of high living, much spending and social standing. A new “territory” was born. Some people lived in Gurugram and worked in Delhi because “the gram” gave the veneer of country living. Others lived in Delhi and worked in Gurugram because Delhi had the advantage of being a social hub where the movers and shakers of society did the rounds of the Delhi Gymkhana, the Delhi Golf Club, the Delhi Race Course, the India International Centre, the India Habitat Centre and much else. In these havens, life pulsated and social elitism flourished. Art and culture were not far behind.

In fact, this intermingling and frequent commuting between the two territories reached such a crescendo that even toll plazas had to be abolished. Straight roads were converted into multiple U-turns. Few if any, complained. And then suddenly, COVID-19 struck the world and walls went up across the country almost overnight.

Haryana discovered its boundaries and passing the non-existent toll plaza became next to impossible. The Delhi-Gurugram border was so heavily monitored that even swanky cars were chased away by the humble stick of the nondescript policeman. The usually unconcerned and cooperative police had finally begun policing to keep Gurugram and (Haryana by implication) safe from the Coronavirus. Unfortunately, the writer of these lines still had his medical care anchored in an institution in Delhi. It didn’t matter that his regular monthly dosage of medicines would run out and his symptoms could not be attended to by random doctors who had, in any case, shut their clinics, because as one doctor pointed out: “Even the potential Corona patient doesn’t tell the truth about foreign travel as there is a serious possibility of being put into quarantine.” Somebody high up in the Haryana administration was spoken to. He gave a very diplomatic reply: “Sir, we will arrange for your medical care in Gurugram. But you know how it is. We make one exception for you and people will push that aperture to their advantage.” So, the borders remain closed, no matter what the compulsion of those trying to cross them. At least, the country has been secured from the Coronavirus. To give everyone his due, the sceptic will ask: “Has it really?”