First an affirmation, although I have not studied it as a subject, my location makes me an expert in this field. Gharaunda, my hometown is flanked by Toll Plazas on both sides, I have thus become a specialist on how ‘toll takers’ take their toll.
Most times there is a queue of impatiently honking cars at the plaza. Primarily it is due to the lackadaisical attitude of the toll takers which is further aggravated by the exact amount of change they have to fish out for each transaction. I have never quite understood why calculation of toll tax is such an exacting science? Can’t 145/- be rounded off to 150/-. Another regular irritant is the shift change. Watching the toll takers casually log out of the system and unhurriedly handover the bounty to their successors is the ultimate test of patience. Frequent system breakdowns that leads to unplanned closing of lanes adds to the misery.
But the longest and ugliest delays are caused when the toll taker refuses to acknowledge some self acclaimed VIP and grant him special status. Every ‘aam’ Indian must have seen this scene of a ‘khaas’ Indian holding up the lane while establishing his credentials using the infamous “Tu jaanta nahin mein kaun hoon.“ I humbly offer two solutions to counter this menace. The first is to have a separate ‘Mujhe pehchano mein hoon Don’ lane for such people. The lane could open out into a comfy cafeteria where they can display their connections without bothering us lesser mortals.
The second more sensible option is to do away with the ‘ Exempt Culture ’ all together. Why should anyone not pay ? In U.K ( and we claim to follow them! ) even the Queen pays toll tax on a turnpike. We too, need to take down the ridiculous boards displaying the long list of exempted dignitaries. They solve no purpose anyway, because every Haryanvi thinks he is a governor, if not the President of India! If deemed necessary the toll can be reimbursed, just like the state reimburses all other expenses of these dignitaries. Once the public understands that everyone pays irrespective of class and clout these arguments will end. At present exemption is viewed as an entitlement. You haven’t truly arrived till a toll taker respectfully waves you through the haloed gates without charging.
Another reason why the public is wary of paying is because toll is viewed as an unjust financial burden. Toll plazas are quick to come up, sometimes even before the highway is completed, and difficult to close down, frequently requiring legal intervention. They are known to under report the number of vehicles plying the route to keep collecting money beyond the stipulated time.
If viewed closely, the time and fuel saved due to wider, smoother roads is offset by these barriers that hold back idling vehicles . Switching off the engine is not an option lest the car ahead moves a millimetre and one doesn’t advance quickly enough, causing angry honks from behind. The needless wastage of precious fuel and the resulting environmental pollution is no laughing matter. Rough estimates have put annual losses due to toll plaza delays at 60,000 crore rupees.
The government has tried to counter these delays by introducing Fast tags. A single smart card that works across the nation and is cheaper than cash payment would encourage more people to use it. But in the end, we need to look for alternatives. There has to be a better way to collect tax than by creating bottlenecks in already choked roads.
( published as part of my column in the Tribune on 23/6/18)