Raj Thackeray and the toll plaza controversy
Raj Thackeray is making news with the toll plazas again with 4 road toll booths vandalized. Earlier this month it was Shiv Sena that torched 3 road toll collection booths. The objective is to disrupt toll collection. They see toll booths as economic crimes by overcharging people, faking accounts to show less profits and continue collecting toll for a longer period. Their actions are violent. To put it bluntly, they are wrecking toll booths. People are getting Pavlovian frowns. Violent is bad, right?
I agree that violence is bad. But I disagree that in this case the only violence is by Thackeray & Co. In Maharashtra, the collusion of powerful people is such that large profits are being made by those in power and their affiliates. It is not a new story. These are known illegal practices by an established mafia that aren’t even dented by repeated exposes. MNS have a point. If the cost of a road is 5 crores, why is 45 crores collected? If vehicle owners pay road tax, why should they also have to pay toll tax for making that road?
Livemint had this to point out earlier this month: Wanted: A transparent road policy in Maharashtra
Many are not against the tolls per se but they feel there is no transparency in the manner in which the contracts for tolled roads are given out and that the government is literally taking them for a ride for the benefit of a few contractors.
For example, the National Highways Authority of India’s (NHAI’s) norms say the distance between two toll plazas should be at least 80km but the Maharashtra government’s policy uses a vague terminology and fixes the distance between two toll plazas at 35-40km. It has never explained why the distance between two plazas should be brought down by half.
Besides, on toll roads, BOT contractors are supposed to provide facilities such as ambulances, toilets and eateries, but except for a few roads like the Mumbai-Pune expressway and the Mumbai-Nashik highway, hardly any other toll road has these facilities.
Contractors are also supposed to maintain the roads during the so-called concession period, when they enjoy the right to collect the toll; but, except in a few major highways, the contractors don’t seem to be interested in taking care of damages caused by usual wear and tear. Officials from the public works department are rarely seen being pro-active and compelling contractors to do their job.
Then there are questions on the manner in which the tendering process is carried out. No one knows who, how and when the traffic surveys are carried out, how the toll fee is fixed, how the period for which a contract is given is calculated, or what formula is used for increasing the fee every year.
Here is an excerpt Chauthiduniya’s June 2012 coverage of the toll tax scam frustration
The illegal exaction of toll tax in Maharashtra has snowballed into a major controversy after the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) cadre resorted to vandalism… In many cases toll is still being charged even after the period of exaction has expired. It is for this reason that none of the political parties of the state condemned the actions of MNS. Instead, many a political heavyweight came out in open support of the protest. Even anti-graft crusader Anna Hazare was seen condoning the protests. The Public Works Minister Chagan Bhujbal was left in a spot of bother as even his cabinet colleagues raised their voice against the malpractice. As a matter of fact, as per a court order, an FIR has been lodged against many senior officials of Bhujbal’s department in connection with the Shiroor toll picket case. The protests against this malpractice later spread from Nasik to Mumbai, Nagpur, Wardha, Amraoti and Bhandara districts.
… The period of toll exaction had ended way back in 2011 but charging of toll has continued unabated even to this day. The 30 kilometer stretch has become the hub of illegal toll collection.Interestingly, even if the toll collection period had ended in 2011, the state government has extended the period by another year and the contract has been given to three contractors. People started a protest movement over this and vandalised the toll picket…
Another interesting facet of the story is that Nasik, from where the entire movement against illegal exaction of toll started, is the home district of Chhagan Bhujbal. He is, perhaps, the only person who has denied any illegality in the issue and is justifying the toll collection. Anna Hazare had earlier raised this issue, and this time state Agriculture Minister Radhakrishna Patil too has pointed fingers at the misplaced toll policy which he wants reviewed so as to prevent any untoward incident happening over the matter.
Patil questioned the wisdom behind the current toll policy and said that it was just filling the coffers of the contractors. MNS says that once the road tax is included at the time of the registration of the vehicles there is no merit in again collecting toll tax. If the cost of the road is just five crores, why does the government authorise a toll tax collection of 45 crores? Toll collection is entirely illegal if we look at some facts. The Nasik-Yewala road was built at a cost of 174 crores yet the government authorised the collection of 1550 crores as toll over a period of 28 years. Similarly, the Aurabgabad-Vadala road incurred an investment of 190 crores, but the government authorised the collection of 1330 crores over 25 years; Shiroor-Ahmadnagar highway was built at a cost 162 crores but collection of 713 crores was authorised for 19 years; Jalan-Watur highway was built at a cost 100 crores but collection of 915 crore was authorised for 30 years; Pune-Shiroor highway built at a cost 105 crores but collection of thrice the amount was authorised. The list is not exhaustive and many more examples can be cited.
Another example of how the poor are suffering at the hands of this draconian taxation is the Dewali village toll picket on the Wardha-Yavatmal highway. As per the law, there should be no toll picket within a kilometer of a village or a town but this one is just 200 metres from the village and for getting to the filling station, the villagers have to pay toll tax. Actually, there is no system for regulating the collection of toll. Though computer-generated slips are given at various places, there is no cross checking of whether the total receipts have broken even with the cost or not. Consequently, the officials take the amount reported by contractors at face value and turn a blind eye to the primary question.
…The leader of Opposition in Maharashtra, Eknath Khadse, has alledged that illegal toll collection is a scam worth at least 10,000 crore for which Chhagan Bhujbal is responsible.
– See more at: http://www.eng.chauthiduniya.com/toll-takes-a-heavy-toll-in-maharashtra/#sthash.tlibsLmd.dpuf
Two years ago, there was a virtual flurry of exposes related with the toll booths. Today, there is no change. This seems set to go the irrigation scam way, and there is little people can do about it.
We see the visible violence – that of a vandalized booth, but we fail to notice the constant violence of exploitation of state resources for the profit of a few powerful entities.
Is the Shiv Sena or MNS wrong in vandalizing the toll booths? Sure. But the fact remains that these cartels entrenched in the system are not going to go away with petitions and candles. I am not all that bothered as long as people are not hurt. Particularly when it comes to property that belongs to the target of the protest (as opposed to breaking random windows and burning cars) and can be easily replaced in a fraction of the ill gotten wealth that is being protested… if it shows results.
But the other fact also remains that vandalizing the toll booths for several years now also has not resulted in any change either. It remains a method of grabbing attention for the cause that lacks teeth to do anything beyond that. Today toll booths all over Maharashtra are being vandalized. It is pointless to tell them to stop, because it is deliberate, and political and long running enough to have a lot of fed up people backing it. If this merely achieves the lack of toll collection till they are repaired, then it does not mean much. If it forces transparency and accountability, perhaps the anarchy will have achieved something.
There is a need for clear and transparent process of tenders, accounts, toll collection, traffic measurement and more. There is no getting around that.