Raj Thackeray and the MNS protested against highway tolls in Maharashtra to demonstrate that it still has political clout, says Neeta Kolhatkar.
The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena's campaign against toll collection in the state began in January and took many by surprise. Initially it resonated with the public, but as reports of vandalism and violence began appearing, the MNS lost the plot.
MNS leader Raj Thackeray's grouse is that tolls have been collected for highways, expressways and flyovers for many years, even after the cost of building them has been recovered. In addition, most of the roads are in a bad condition despite the tolls.
The Maharashtra government had written to the central government to shut down some toll booths. Ten have been shut down. Apart from those, four are perpetual toll centres, and come under the National Highway Authority of India.
The state government has written to the Centre to permanently scrap these toll plazas, as the roads are in a pathetic condition. After the violence and road blocks, 22 toll plazas will be shut down.
Tolls began to be collected when the National Democratic Alliance government was in power. In 1996, then public works department minister Nitin Gadkari started the Build Operate and Transfer policy.
The partner who invests in the construction was allowed to charges toll to recover, maintain and create a fund that can contribute for future roads and highway expansions.
Tolls are also levied on high quality roads like the Mumbai-Pune Expressway and the Bandra-Worli sea link in Mumbai.
One needs to ask about the MNS intent behind its toll-free campaign. According to the Regional Transport Office, there are 19.4 million registered vehicles and 13.9 million registered two wheelers for a population of 112.4 million in the state.
Maharashtra does not even figure in the top 10 states with the highest number of vehicle owners. So who did Raj Thackeray fight for?
The average distance between toll booths in Maharashtra is 35 km. In Gujarat, which many say has a better toll policy, the distance between toll booths is between 25 km and 30 km.
Only Maharashtra has an electronic display that shows the toll amount collected, the cost of the project and duration of the toll.
Critics of the toll policy say there are other options like road tax. Some transporters say they would rather pay upfront and supported the call for a toll ban.
If a road tax was introduced in lieu of a toll, the BOT policy would need to be changed. A road tax would mean charging even those who don't use those highways and expressways, while a toll is specific to use.
A Bombay high court bench rejected a petition against tolls, saying the government was not wrong in charging a toll. The judges also rejected the option of levying tax in its lieu.
Given all this, why did the MNS protest?
Many pre-poll surveys say the MNS will do badly in the general election. Some observers even claim the party is nearly finished. Maharashtra will go in for assembly elections by October and the MNS wants to send out a signal that it still has some political clout in the state.
Image: Sahil Salvi captures the image of an MNS activist picked up by the police for allege vandalism at a toll booth.