'Toll' order for the state?

In the run up to the Lok Sabha polls last year, the late Gopinath Munde – the BJP’s star campaigner at the time – had promised to make Maharashtra toll tax-free. He said he had a plan in place to make this possible. 

Senior party leader Nitin Gadkari rubbished Munde’s idea. He said there was only one way to make the state toll-free – to pay off in one go all that the toll collectors would have earned in their respective contract periods. Gadkari, who later became Union road transport minister, says he’s working on a plan to offer relief to road users. We don’t know Gadkari’s plan yet.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who was one of the most vocal campaigners against toll collection, said on the 100th day of his government that his party had not made any promise to make Maharashtra toll-free. This is perplexing for those who thought that the BJP would bring them ‘acche din’ on roads. Even as he is accused of taking U-turn on the issue, however, Fadnavis has promised to correct the state’s flawed toll policy.

Toll tax was one of the poll planks that helped the BJP score points over their opponents in the state elections as well. The issue was debated aggressively in Assembly poll campaign, which the BJP led by making wild allegations against the Congress-NCP government. Convinced that the BJP would find a permanent solution to their toll woes, the people of Maharashtra propelled the party in the Centre to power in the state as well. In the meantime, a worried Congress-NCP combination decided to stop collection at 40-odd toll plazas on the state’s various roads. These ‘freed’ roads did not include those with big cash transactions and long-time contracts.

Activists have cried foul over several contracts awarded by the past governments. Scams were uncovered in many cases since the toll contract concept was implemented about 15-17 years ago in the state, and these scams were blamed on a politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus. The current government has come under harsh criticism as well, for not taking any concrete decision in its 100 days in power.

Some time ago, mid-day had exposed irregularities in the Aarey Colony toll contracts, which a specific cartel bagged most of the time. The companies that won these bids had common owners and office addresses. The contract papers were incomplete and would not withstand legal ground. People who used this 7-km stretch of badly maintained road have questioned authorities over non-transparency in issuing contracts, while experts and activists who understand the economics of toll collection, say there are several other Aarey-like examples where toll collectors continue to flout regulations that were put in place after agitations by activists like Anna Hazare.

While political parties faced criticism after they stopped protests against the state’s toll policy, we also saw the government go on the back foot in Kolhapur, where violent protests against toll collection are regular. The government promised this town relief, but has not succeeded yet. More recently, the Khargar toll plaza evoked unforeseen political reaction before the Assembly polls. A local Congress legislator quit the party ahead of the elections to contest on a BJP ticket, promising to resign if he did not get the toll collection stalled. Later, however, the toll collector got the court to intervene and began charging people again. We are yet to hear from this MLA on his resignation plans.

Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai’s toll woes are even bigger. Mumbai’s flyovers, for which big amounts are collected at entry points, are not maintained properly. The state authorities responsible for carrying out inspections are hardly active. Commuters who wish to complain do not get easy access to the officers who matter. Many people do not know why money is collected at the city entry points. You pay toll when you exit from Thane city in all directions. The short distances between toll plazas here defy toll policy and burden commuters unnecessarily.

It isn’t that the people don’t want to pay toll tax. We enjoy our ride on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, save time and fuel. However, of late, people have started questioning the hefty hike in charges on the expressway and the services they get in return. The condition of Centre-owned highways remains under public scrutiny for similar reasons. It would be interesting to see how Fadnavis proposes to alter toll policy. Gadkari has said the state could adopt his department’s policy once it is issued. But we expect the two leaders to not rely solely on policy-makers in the government. We expect them to seek public opinion as well.

Dharmendra Jore is Political Editor, mid-day

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