The long wait continues to take a Toll

Toll-free Maharashtra, a poll promise made by BJP in October 2014 elections has not become a reality yet. The Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who is rising in political ranks by making swift decisions and cutting through the red tape, has not found a toll-free line yet. This is the first time ever any government has initiated serious actions to shut down the toll booths, however, nothing much has changed for people of Mumbai and nearby districts. The toll still continues on all five entry points of Mumbai (Vashi, Airoli, Mulund, Bhandup, Dahisar).

Let’s first look at how Maharashtra government has responded on this issue in last 2.5 years:

Nov 2014:
“Toll-free Maharashtra is a huge procedure. We will do that but we will first correct the lack of transparency and huge crowding at toll plazas which irks the common man.”- Chandrakant Patil, State PWD minister (read).

Feb 2015:
“The toll-free Maharashtra promise was never mentioned in our manifesto but still we are on the way to ensure it.- Devendra Fadnavis, Chief Minister of Maharashtra (source).

 

Jun 2015:
No toll for private four-wheelers (light vehicles) and state transport buses at 53 toll plazas while 12 toll plazas were fully shut down. The decision on five Mumbai entry points postponed (source). 

Apr 2016:
“It is not feasible to implement a completely toll free policy in the state. However, the new toll policy that the government is drafting will bring in transparency and make sure that small vehicles have a toll-free ride on as many roads as possible,” Chandrakant Patil, State PWD minister (source).

 

Apr 2017:
Can’t waive off Mumbai entry point toll tax at least for now- State PWD Minister Chandrakant Patil (source).

The delaying tactics of state government is quite evident. Here’s why the toll collection on Mumbai entry points is completely unjustified:

  1. Lack of Transparency by the Contractor
  • The toll contractor MEP Infrastructure Pvt. Ltd. has historically underreported the collection figures by 27% to 50%. This was revealed in an investigation done by the government of Maharashtra through a videography between 8th to 15th July 2015.
  • While toll collection started in 1998, details of money collected were only available from 2002, when the authorized resolution was passed by the government.
  • The MSRDC website, which reports the day-wise toll collection figures has nothing reported for 5th June 2017. Whereas I myself have paid the toll on that evening. (receipt below)
  1. Violation of Terms of the Contract
    • The contract signed between government of Maharashtra and MEP Infrastructure clearly mentions that waiting period at toll plaza shall not exceed 4 minutes.
    • The contractor has clearly failed on this clause- anyone who has ever passed through any of these entry points can validate this. During the peak hours on weekdays, the waiting period on a good day is between 10-15 minutes and on a bad day it could be up to 20-35 minutes [my personal experience in last few years].

The Public Works Department (MSRDC) minister Eknath Shinde had earlier commented that vehicles at toll plazas will be allowed to leave without paying the toll at the time of heavy traffic jams. He also assured the legislative council that such directives would be issued to the toll companies across the state. However, this again turned out to be a poll gimmick and no action has been taken yet.

3. Wrong Principle of Toll Charging

  • The Toll is generally charged to recover the investment in developing a new infrastructure (such as bridge, highway, etc.). Leave aside the construction cost of entry point roads, the contract for MEP Infrastructure includes the maintenance of 55 flyovers (on Western express, Eastern express, Sion-Panvel highway, LBS Marg and Mumbai Island roads); and in return they are allowed to collect the toll.
  • In nutshell, government is using the toll collection mechanism to get free maintenance of road infrastructure across Mumbai. About 250,000 vehicles pass through the five toll booths every day and they fund the road infrastructure maintenance need of ~23 Million Mumbai population.
  • Why not rather come up with an alternate mechanism through which 23 Million people of Mumbai can also share this flyover maintenance burden in equal proportion. For example, an additional 5 paisa per litre surcharge on petrol and diesel in Mumbai and nearby area (In any case, fuel in this region is the costliest in India so let the price go marginally up further). Of course, there could be many other ideas to gather the maintenance fund.

4. The GDP impact

  • It is a noteworthy fact that about 75% of these 250,000 vehicles belong to the people (from Navi Mumbai, Thane, Dombivali, Kalyan, Virar area) who travel to Mumbai every day for their jobs.
  • A Maharashtra state appointed consultant worked out the arithmetic of the futile waiting time and estimated that 2% of the city’s GDP was lost due to the long queues at the toll plazas.
  • In currency terms, the GDP loss is whopping INR 6,260 crore annually as against the INR 222 crores toll collected from light motor vehicles at five entry points of Mumbai.

The Maharashtra government says that contracts signed by the previous government have no buy back option and a new toll policy has to be created to ensure small vehicles have a toll-free ride. A committee was appointed in June 2015 to suggest the way out and was asked to submit the report within a month. But the report has not been submitted to date.

According to a rough estimate, the government might have to pay INR 250 crore annually for at least the next 10 years to exempt the entry point toll for small vehicles. Unfortunately, Devendra Fadnavis inherited a debt-ridden state economy and the decision to delay the toll waiver may be financially justified. However, at some point in time the government would need to bite the bullet and that must happen very soon given the turbulent relationship of BJP and Shiv Sena, which may force the state into a mid-term poll anytime.

The phrase “toll free Maharashtra” which was popularized by the state BJP unit, seems to have stuck in everyone’s mind and any failure to achieve that may give a new lease of life to the opposition parties.

Unfortunately it’s always a long wait for ordinary citizens- whether it’s about paying the toll or expecting the toll waiver!

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