In a city where we pay the toll much longer than we should, the introduction of e-toll collection at the Bandra Worli sea link is a welcome step. It will save not just time and fuel, but its strongest impact will be felt in the transparency it will usher in. Fudging of toll collection figures, a standard operating procedure for toll operators, will be difficult now as the actual collection will be reflected across the virtual system.
E-tolling is in line with the recommendations of the Nandan Nilekani committee which took a 360 degree look at the introduction of electronic toll collection in the country. It has recommended a prepaid system of toll collection, much like what’s being implemented in the e-toll lane at the sea link. A tag pasted on the windshield of a vehicle would be read by transceivers installed at toll plazas. Many cities such as Melbourne and Singapore use overhead sensors for toll collection. The system automatically tracks fleet movement and smoothens traffic flow.
The sea link has a single toll collection line for e-toll payers. To make the e-tolling experiment successful, we need to reverse this by keeping just one point for single-time users.
Admittedly, all systems are vulnerable to human tampering. But it will not be quite as easy and the possibility of getting caught looms much larger with the e-system than it does with the manual system. The Nilekani committee has put forth many ways to deal with all probable issues that might arise with e-toll.
Apart from introducing e-toll booths, there is much more that needs to be done to streamline and inject some honesty into toll collection. In the absence of actual data, most toll collection contractors or concessionaires underplay the actual traffic flow to enhance their returns. All toll booths in the state are awarded on concessional period basis — that is, the number of years an operator is permitted to collect the toll is fixed on the basis of estimated traffic. So, if a road is expected to be used by 30,000 vehicles per day and if it takes the operator 20 years to make his 14 to 16 per cent rate of return, that is the period for which he will be permitted to collect the toll.
It is in the calculation of the concessional period, determined at the time of sealing the bid, that the mischief happens. It is common to show the traffic volume to be lower than it is so that the operator continues to collect the toll much after he earns his keep.
There are other issues. While the toll centres at the five entry points into Mumbai offer computerised receipts, many toll booths outside the city issue pre-printed toll passes. In the manual system of accounting, it is possible to print duplicate receipts without anybody ever finding out.
The state policy says there should not be two toll collection centres within a distance of 35 km. There is a move to change this norm to 55 km, but even the current norm is brazenly violated. Mulund, Vashi and Airoli toll nakas, for instance, fall within 35 km.
Another critical lacunae is the absence of competitive bidding, which is nothing if not an act of public defiance by the government. Very often, the contract is awarded to a single bidder because other bidders are simply not allowed to bid. The tender forms are zealously protected from parties that don’t find favour with the bosses. In one contract, one of India’s biggest corporates had protested when it was not allowed to buy the form.
After a couple of phone calls from one particular minister, it quietened down. Last heard, it has been accommodated in another, bigger contract.
There is a real need to eliminate manual interference in the toll collection system at all levels. The solutions are simple but need political will: video-record the actual flow of traffic to determine the concessional period, introduce IT-enabled toll collection at all booths if not a tag-reading system, introduce e-tendering to make bidding transparent and, for the benefit of the user, advertise the estimated traffic volume on the road.
— The writer is a senior journalist based in Mumbai