Jammu Toll Plazas – Another mismanaged episode

Rajan Gandhi
The road network of India is second largest road network in the world with total length of around six lakh kilometers. Indian road network consists of -Expressways, National Highways and State Highways and other major district and rural roads. This amazing network of roads also has Elevated Expressways, Cloverleaf Interchange. But the government do not have enough resources to build world class roads that provide uninterrupted ride and as such all major highway projects are nowadays outsourced mainly through NHAI which call for open tenders from infrastructure companies and give them contract of laying the road in a fixed time frame. Companies then start developing the project and invest from themselves mainly through bank loans and partly from NHAI. Subsequently they then setup Toll Tax Plaza on the planned place where the vehicles have to pay the toll in return of using the roads. The cost includes everything – investment cost as well as interest to be paid to the bank, salaries, litigation costs, profits, amount to be paid to NHAI.
In addition to this toll government earns from sale of every vehicle in the form of one time road tax and through petrol/diesel sale. It has been a common practice in the past to cut duties when global crude prices increased. However, since 2014, the Government has been found increasing excise duty even as global prices fell, leading to an increase in the central government’s revenue. According to the Ministry of Finance’s revenue collection estimates, the Central government collected over Rs 2.579-lakh crore by levying taxes on the petroleum products in FY19. This is a massive jump from the gross revenue collection of around Rs 88,600 crore in 2013/14. In FY18, the collection was Rs 2.016-lakh crore. Government is earning Rs.9 on every litre of petrol or diesel in the form of cess for road infrastructure. Even toll tax income is expected to be as much as Rs 30,000 crore in the current financial year 2019-20 and is supposed to be over three times in the next five years to touch Rs 1 lakh crore, mainly led by expansion of road network in the country.
But case of our J&K highway is unique and peculiar as two toll plazas were supposed to be made operational in 2012 when the four-laning of the Jammu-Pathankot highway was completed. The notification for it was announced in 2016 and since then, the NHAI had been approaching the state government for giving its nod to start toll plazas. NHAI tried in the past also to get this controversial Toll Plaza at Sarore operational but was opposed tooth and nail by BJP at that time. Selection of location has caused wide spread resentment as long traffic jams due to space constrain. It clearly shows that whole implementation has been done in a non-professional way with no accountability without taking transporters or general public into confidence with the resultant total chaos which even NHAI authorities admitted in their press conference. The high handedness of the contractor and his men is evident on camera, no uniform for employees, no assistance, no ambulances for accident and no cranes to remove the accidental vehicles are all too glaring examples and in addition to that NHAI authorities citing inexperience of contractor who is handling the Bann Toll Plaza also since 2015 speaks itself of sham excuses only by NHAI. Why so much soft corner for the contractor and how the same contractor is getting contracts not only in J and K but outside our state also only raises many eyebrows on the e-tendering process itself. Another dream given by NHAI is implementation of 3 minute waiting time and Electronic Toll Collection(ETC) from road users electronically without stopping at the toll plazas by using the unique number of the RFID FASTag affixed on the wind shield of the vehicle which will be read by the readers fitted in the dedicated ‘ETC’ lanes of plazas and the toll will be deducted automatically. Can NHAI authorities explain in a state where there were no mobile services for almost seventy plus days and whole state is still without mobile internet how the whole ETC will work? They are just trying to put shades on their shoddy planning and nothing else.
Fixation of rates is another issue which doesn’t have any logic or explanation except single line answers by NHAI that Central Government guidelines are followed. More interesting is the fact that Punjab has 18 Toll Plazas but none of them charges as high as Baan Toll Plaza of Jammu , in fact this Toll plaza is one of the highest charged Toll Plaza. It is more intriguing to observe that Bann Toll Plaza rate has increased by 60% in the past three years, affecting the road users severely. Started in March 2015, the toll for light motor vehicles was fixed at Rs 85 for single entry and Rs 130 for double. In April 2017, the rates were increased by 35% to Rs 115 for single journey and Rs 170 for double. In April 2018, it again was hiked to Rs120 and Rs180 for single and double entry, respectively. In this April it was raised to Rs 135 and Rs 200 for single and double entry, respectively for private vehicles and proportionately for other vehicles. What is the logic or reasoning for increase of 60% in three years? Another interesting thing is that NHAI site shows 5 Toll Plazas in J&K , all in Jammu Division. As per data available till 2017 Bann Toll Plaza caters to 23160 PCU/day (passenger car unit) against a design capacity of 32000 PCU/day quietly achieved by now and collected a revenue of Rs58.28 cr. as on date 31-Dec-2016. As per monthly report of April 2015 submitted by Regional Officer persons on duty at Toll Plaza were not wearing uniforms but no action was taken. Most astonishing thing is that after this report neither any other monthly report nor revenue collected has ever been published which speaks itself about the transparency of NHAI and Central Ministry of Road Transport and Highways is also a mute spectator to all this. There is provision of penalty of 100 times user fee charged for denial of exemption or concession to eligible person but despite numerous complaints regarding renewal of monthly passes no action has been taken.
Due to the limited number of toll booths and slow collection process due to manual collection only, the average waiting time per vehicle is 10 minutes. This results in losses worth thousands of cores in terms of fuel wastage. This long wait time often results in drivers getting irritated resulting in verbal spats and physical fights among people and the toll attendants. In addition, there are numerous cases of toll plaza accidents which happen due to the sudden lane changing by drivers for faster clearance. But who cares as is evident from press briefing by NHAI officials, no planning, no vision and no consideration only excuses to hide their own shortcomings. More astonishing is the fact that no main stream party has taken up all these issues and as such have left public to fight on their own. With Jammu Kathua route transporters on strike and one day token support strike by all transporters, is it advisable for state administration to disturb the peace of Jammu region as well, if not then they have to resolve the matter at the earliest, the sooner the better.