A recent media report suggests that the government is considering a plan to exempt private vehicles from paying toll charges for using highways and instead levy a one-time 2% tax on new vehicles. The government's proposal is based on a study by the national highways authority of India (NHAI) that found private vehicles generated just 14% of revenue at toll plazas. Prima facie, the proposed move seems to be impressive; but the question to ask here is, is this the permanent solution to decongest the roads?
Expiring toll taxes in one go is like erasing the question in order to bury its solution. The government has also proposed to compensate NHAI for its loss in toll revenue, which is estimated to be around Rs. 20 crore annually. This again paints a sorry picture for the government as it trying to compensate some by burdening others. No doubt, the sum of Rs. 20 crore will cause a dent to public exchequer. And, immediately paying 2% tax on new vehicle will not be easy for anyone who has labouriously toiled to save to buy his new vehicle. The conditions of roads are already deplorable, without toll taxes they aren't going to improve further. Government must focus more on streamlining toll taxes, making it uniform and transparent in its whole process. Besides, it should look for alternative solutions to decongest the roads.
Toll plazas have been set up at over two dozen places in the State. Toll booths create traffic snarls that result in jams and delay. A case in point is the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway. The problem of congestion at the toll plaza here made the Delhi high court pass an order to dismantle the toll plazas at the highly congested Sirhaul border and Indira Gandhi International airport on the expressway, under the supervision of the high court.
Even the process of toll collection at toll plazas lacks transparency and the issue has been raised even in Parliament time and again. The issue of toll tax is a major problem for the local people in the state as they pay tax to move around their own state. People rue the high tolls on the highway -- currently an average user has to pay Rs 2.28 per km! The one-side toll charge for a light motor vehicle on the Rohtak-Panipat highway is Rs. 105 flat, what if a resident uses the highway to travel just a short distance.
Much dissent is there in the air in the state over the issue of high toll charges. The protests against tolls are fast becoming a law and order issue in the state. Take for example, the incident of the villagers from a nearby Mohabatabad village manhandling the toll plaza shift- in-charge at the Ballabgarh-Sohna road toll plaza at night on April 22. This happened when the occupants of a Mahindra Scorpio called in reinforcements from the village when insisted by the toll operator to pay the toll. The mob even ransacked the premises and damaged a toll booth there.
As per the present policy of the National Highway Authority of India, in case of 6-laning projects where 4-lane facilities are already available, tolling is started immediately even before completion of highways. This provision has raised heckles. Given the lack of clarity on the way tolls are charged across the country, on August 1, this year, the Parliament too took a stern view on the issue and the Speaker asked the government to properly investigate the issue.
Another issue is that of siphoning off of the toll collection, which in no way contributes to the upkeep of the roads for which the tolls are meant. An example of this is again the Gurgaon-Delhi expressway. In this particular case the NHAI had to file a complaint with the Economic Offences Wing last year with regard to suspected siphoning off toll money by the concessionaire of Delhi-Gurgaon expressway. The complaint with the EOW was lodged after the road transport and highways ministry asked NHAI to file an FIR against the operator based on its study that had found huge under-reporting of traffic at the 32-lane toll plaza. According to the study, the under-reporting caused NHAI a loss of Rs 24 crore between August 2012 and July 2013. Stern action needs to be taken even in the semi-urban and rural areas where highways have come up and commuters are being fleeced at even the smallest distances.