Rising inflation, steeply increasing fuel prices, high maintenance cost - the woes of the motorists seem to be endless. And now there has been a steep rise in toll collected by National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) adding to their existing misery. Whether they drive for work or pleasure, motoring has been made a costly affair. Moreover, the hike is not uniform across toll plazas and thus serves to create confusion amongst motorists. Now one may point out that when we are paying so much and so many taxes then at least these toll taxes should be scrapped for good. Maintaining highways does come under building nation’s infrastructure for which we are already paying various taxes. Case Study: Jaladhulagori toll plaza on NH-6 For small cars, the toll tax has gone up from Rs. 30 to Rs. 85 at Jaladhulagori toll plaza on NH-6 near Uluberia enroute Kolaghat. The policy on collection of user fee is based on the provisions of National Highways Act, 1956 (48 of 1956) and National Highways Fee (Determination of Rates and Collection) Rules, 2008, as amended. Ashoka Buildcon Ltd's subsidiary Ashoka Dhankuni Kharagpur Tollway Ltd, a concessionaire, has executed an agreement with National Highways Authority of India for six-laning Dhankuni to Kharagpur section of NH-6 from 17.6 km to 129 km (the distance is calculated from Kolkata, Raj Bhavan). Let’s see what it says: The Central Government decides the expenditure involved in building, maintenance, management and operation of the Dhankuni – Kharagpur section from 17.6 km to 129 km. Along with the interest on the capital invested, reasonable return, the volume of traffic and the period of the agreement entered into between the authority and the concessionaire who will be collecting fees for bridges / structures costing Rs. 50 crore or more till the termination date as specified in the agreement. Concessionaire means a person with whom an agreement has been entered into under section 8A of the Act. Levy of fee: The Central Government may by notification, levy fee for use of any section of national highway, permanent bridge, bypass or tunnel forming part of the national highway. The collection of fee levied under sub-rule (1) of rule 3, shall commence within 45 days from the date of completion of the section of national highway, permanent bridge, bypass or tunnel, as the case may be, constructed through a public funded project. No fee shall be levied for the use of the section of national highway, permanent bridge, bypass or tunnel, as the case may be, by two wheelers, three wheelers, tractors and animal drawn vehicles provided that they shall not be allowed to use the section of national highway, permanent bridge, bypass or tunnel, as the case may be, where a service road or alternative road is available in lieu of the said national highway, permanent bridge, bypass or tunnel. If a two wheeler is making use of the section it shall be charged 50% of what is levied on a car. (An ‘alternate road’ means such other road, the carriageway of which is more than 10 metres wide and the length of which does not exceed the corresponding length of such section of national highway by 20%). The rate of fee for use of a section of national highway, having two lanes and on which the average investment for up gradation has exceeded Rs.100 crore per km, shall be 60% of the rate of fee specified under sub-rule (2) of rule 4. The rates specified as above shall be increased without compounding, by 3% each year with effect from the 1st day of April, 2008, and such increased rate shall be deemed to be the base rate for the subsequent years. The applicable base rates shall be revised annually with effect from April 1 each year, to reflect the increase in wholesale price index. Fee levied under these rules shall be collected by the Central Government or the executing authority or the concessionaire, as the case may be at the toll plaza. Central Government may by notification allow any or all executing authorities to appropriate the whole or any part of the fee for such purposes and subject to such conditions as may be specified. Q & A 'Kolkata on WHEELS' (KOW) had dug in further to find out the reason behind the actual increase in toll at Jaladhulagori Toll Plaza. We spoke to Ajay Ahluwalia, Chief General Manager, National Highways of India (NHAI) on this issue. And here is the interview... KOW: How are the referred distances of 17.6 km, 35.250 km and 129 km calculated? NHAI: The distances are calculated from the Raj Bhavan, Kolkata. KOW: For 50 or more rides, there is a concession of two third of amount of the fee. Is it displayed at any point? NHAI: No. You have brought to notice one very important point. I will ask the concerned person to look into the matter. This provision should be displayed, it’s important. KOW: What about public disclosure of the revenue earned? Where is it published? How does one calculate the figure after taking into account the cost of the project? NHAI: All the financial details are with the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. The cost of project is calculated with great care. One can always file a RTI to know all the factual details. KOW: What happens when a person is unable to pay toll tax? Do you excuse him or ask him to return. NHAI: That is an interesting question. It is really difficult to adjudge at this point. It actually depends on the toll man and the manager to decide either to excuse him or ask him to return. KOW: Why the VIPs are exempted from paying taxes, whereas the common people are burdened with more? NHAI: That is how the whole system works. People who are exempted are public servants and they definitely enjoy privileges. Now, we cannot really figure out that when a VIP is on official tour or on personal visit. KOW: When we are paying direct taxes for national development then why are we again paying taxes for National Highways and bridges? Is it not an extra burden? NHAI: The money that the Government gets from road tax is not sufficient for maintaining all the roads and highways. Many highways are not tolled and fund is also required to maintain the 2 lane and 1 lane roads. KOW: What is the parallel road to NH-6? NHAI: There cannot be any parallel road to any highway. Even the State Government cannot build one. KOW: Isn’t Delhi Road (old NH-2) parallel to Durgapur Expressway (new NH-2)? We feel, there should be atleast one bypass for people who don’t want to pay toll tax to avail better road condition. Please comment. NHAI: No, there should not be any bypass roads to highways because at the end of the day that will lead to less usage of the highways. We could not widen the old NH-2 so we had to build another road. At some places, the old NH-2 do run parallel to Durgapur Expressway. KOW: Isn’t that a self defeating proposition since transportation continues on the bypass to avoid the high tax. Please comment. NHAI: See, if one uses the bypass we cannot do anything. But the route will be longer and more bumpier. Therefore, it will be always better to use the highways which are well maintained. KOW: According to a clause, there should not be two toll plazas within a distance of 60 km of each other. Then why there are toll plazas at both Dhulagori and Dhankuni, which is barely 20 km away from each other? NHAI: It is because one is on NH-2 and the other on NH-6. KOW: Why this jump from Rs. 35 to Rs. 85? NHAI: We have opened the Roopnarayan Bridge to public. Therefore, there has been an increase in toll fee. We cannot charge people unnecessarily. Once we have provided the added service then only we can ask for additional charge. KOW: Why the toll plaza for Roopnarayan Bridge is located at Jaladhulagori - about 40 km away? NHAI: One has to built a toll plaza somewhere between a distance of 60 km. KOW: Why one has to pay for both the Roopnarayan Bridge and the highway together even if he does not use the bridge? NHAI: That is true. One may not use the whole length. At present we do not have any provision for calculating the actual usage. We have some futuristic plans in mind. We want to install ‘Radio Frequency Identification’ tags in cars. Here, one can easily recharge at any toll plaza and when one crosses a toll plaza, the amount will automatically get debited from his pre-charged account. If every vehicle is installed with ‘Vehicle Tracking System and GPS’ then the actual usage can be calculated. But this will take some time to be implemented. No country as of now has this system. KOW: How long the toll will be collected? Where has the date of closing been published? NHAI: We have an agreement with the concessionaire, where it is mentioned that till when the concessionaire will collect the toll. Generally after the project cost is recovered, the toll fee is reduced by 40%. We then collect it for maintenance. In this case, the concessionaire has 25 years to recover the cost. Summing-up: It is quite apparent NHAI do not have suitable answers to the queries and issued raised by ‘Kolkata on WHEELS’. They have failed to justify why the sum of Rs. 85 is being imposed as toll on all users even when the Roopnarayan Bridge may not be used by everybody. It could not clarify how it arrived to the magic figure of Rs. 85 and after what calculations? But ‘Kolkata on WHEELS’ will continue to strive to get to the truth and fight for the rights of the motorists.