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Why we end up paying high road tolls

Last updated on: April 21, 2013 13:05 IST

Why we end up paying high road tolls

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M P Pinto


The most pernicious abuse of the toll system is the VIP syndrome. Most toll plazas carry a long list of VIP vehicles that are exempt from payment and others have to compensate for them.

We seem to have come a long way from Kamal Nath's boast, when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) started its second innings, that he would build 20 kilometres of road a day.

In 2012-13, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) was able to award projects for just 787 km, about 2 km per day.

The only other time a worse performance was recorded was at the height of the global slowdown in 2008-09 when only six projects of 600 km were awarded.

The tragedy is that the NHAI could have done much better if a few relatively simple policy initiatives were taken. The difficulties developers face are well known. Land acquisition continues to be shrouded in uncertainty and delays.

Environmental clearances take inordinately long to obtain and are needed even for relatively simple things such as quarrying.

Many of the problems that the road sector faces are part of the whole tangle in which the infrastructure sector finds itself.

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Image: Minister of Urban Development Kamal Nath. He was earlier in charge of Ministry for Road Transport and Highways.
Photographs: Courtesy, World Economic Forum

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Clarity on land acquisition will not be available until the new Bill is passed, and even then there could be procedural issues.

Environmental clearance will have to be obtained regardless of the time it takes, and forest clearances or permission to use railway land will inevitably run into turf issues with the departments concerned.

One area in which the government is relatively free to take speedy decisions, however, is the question of tolls. And, unfortunately, movement on reform in this area has proceeded at a glacial pace.

The whole attitude towards tolls is more than a little ambiguous. All over the world people live with tolls and accept that if good highways are to be built and maintained, tolls will have to be paid.

Yet in India, both civil society activists and political parties have regarded tolls as an unmitigated evil that must be abolished as soon as possible.

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Image: A motorist passes through a toll plaza.
Photographs: Stephen Lam/Reuters
Tags: Bill , India

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Why we end up paying high road tolls

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Anna Hazare's movement, like Raj Thackeray's party, continues to target concessionaires who collect tolls - picketing toll plazas has become almost routine.

As a result, we see the odd situation in which major toll plazas give prominence not to the toll each vehicle must pay, but to details of the project cost and when it will be recovered so that tolls can be phased out.

The difficulty with this approach is that it overlooks the need for both constant maintenance and a reasonable return to the entrepreneur.

In an ideal world, the government would have enough money both to build and to maintain all the roads that society needs. In this less-than-ideal world, however, budgetary constraints make it imperative for the government to rope in the private sector.

And there is no way in which private enterprise will invest without the prospect of any return.

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Image: Anna Hazare.
Photographs: Reuters

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Is it better to have a well-built and well-maintained road, which you must pay to use, or would you prefer a bad road that ruins your car?

Even when tolls are collected, the concessionaire must contend with that ultimate burden, the host of exemptions given to different categories of vehicles from payment of tolls.

Exemptions create huge problems, starting with hold-ups at the tollbooth while the operator ascertains whether a particular vehicle is indeed exempt.

Concessionaires complain that while tolls are fixed by categories of vehicles like, say, light commercial vehicles (LCVs), the definition of LCV differs from state to state and from area to area.

How can there be a uniform way of charging such vehicles and how does a tollbooth attendant cope with the challenge? Then consider the odd sums fixed for tolls.

A return journey on the Mumbai sea link costs Rs 82.50. How many 50 paise coins will the attendant need to return the exact change to each customer? And how much time will it take?

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Image: Bandra-Worli Sea Link, Mumbai.
Photographs: Gladson Machado/Wikimedia Commons
Tags: LCV , Mumbai

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Wouldn't it be more sensible to round off the amount the concessionaire is allowed to charge so that change, at least, is not an issue?

The most pernicious abuse of the toll system, however, is the VIP syndrome. Most toll plazas carry a long list of VIP vehicles that are exempt from payment.

The immense damage this does to the system has not been adequately analysed. The concessionaire who bids for a road contract does so after taking into account the likely amount he will recoup from collection of tolls.

The long list of exemptions makes any such calculation impossible. How does anyone know how many vehicles using the tolled facility will be exempted vehicles and, therefore, not liable to pay the toll?

And, because he cannot make a reasonable estimate, the concessionaire takes the safe way out by bidding much higher than he would otherwise have done. So, costs to society go up because of exemptions.

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Image: VIP cars parked outside Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Photographs: Poco a poco/Wikimedia Commons
Tags: VIP

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It is easy to understand why a fire engine rushing to the site of a fire or a police vehicle taking forces to quell a law and order problem should enjoy toll exemption.

But why should diplomats be exempt? Why should any government vehicle, civilian or defence, not pay tolls?

If the vehicle carries an officer on official duty, she will be reimbursed the toll paid as part of travelling allowance.

Officials do not travel free on the railways just because they are government functionaries. Instead, the rail fare they pay is reimbursed to them. Surely the same can happen in the case of tolls?

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Image: A fire engine at a fire station.
Photographs: Luke MacGregor/Reuters
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The problem really is that in spite of being a democracy we are still stuck in the matrix of an onerous VIP culture.

A person in authority needs to have his position publicly acknowledged even through a simple thing like not paying the toll like everyone else. How else should ordinary people recognise his superior status?

So, we have the awful picture of a legislator brandishing a gun and actually shooting because some hapless tollbooth attendant committed the unforgivable crime of not recognising him and pandering to his ego.

The writer is a former shipping secretary to the Government of India


Image: Traffic at a toll plaza.
Photographs: Joe Giza/Reuters
Tags: VIP , India

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