The demonetisation-induced cash crunch brought some relief to motorists of Mumbai and Maharashtra. Albeit short lived, people celebrated the decision of the state as well as central government to suspend toll collection at all plazas including all the five Mumbai entry points.
Toll collection across the state was suspended temporarily on 9 November after the PM Narendra Modi announced the demonetisation of Rs 1000 and Rs 500 notes on 8 November. The collection was eventually resumed on 2 December.
While the contractor companies have put up a demand of Rs 125 crore compensation for losses incurred over three weeks when the collection was suspended, citizens are pointing out that this toll collection is nothing but 'government-approved loot'.
The central, as well as the state governments, have made up their mind to accept the demands. Union Surface Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has indicated that the central government will compensate for the losses.
Similarly, the state government will compensate for losses incurred by Ideal Road Builders (IRB), which collects the toll for Mumbai Pune Expressway and Mumbai Entry Points.
While the government had made tall claims about going cashless and appealed people to do so, the Mumbai Entry Point and the Toll Collection Company failed to provide Point of Sale (POS) machines at the booths. As a result, the first three days after toll collection was resumed saw heated conflicts between motorists and toll-collection staff.
The demand of a staggering Rs 125 crore compensation for just three weeks has raised several eyebrows on the extent of the collection.
"It is nothing but blatant loot at the behest of the government. Daily toll collection at all the plazas in the state is Rs 1,800 crore. Going by this, one can imagine the mind-boggling amount collected as toll, which comes to Rs 21,600 crore. All these transactions are made in cash and the biggest hub of black money generation," said Vivek Velankar, of Sajag Nagrik Manch, Pune.
Velankar has been fighting against this practice of 'loot in the name of toll'. As far as Mumbai Pune Expressway toll collection is concerned, Velankar claims that the same was recovered in total, including all overheads and even interest on the loan, by 9 November, when the toll collection was suspended.
"In fact, the company has already collected the toll up to March 2019. The company has no right to continue collection. We have written to the Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis demanding immediate closure of the toll plazas at Mumbai Pune Expressway," Velnakar said.
But, since the 'loot' is being shielded by the government, innocent people will have to keep paying the toll for several years to come, Velnakar alleged.
According to Velnakar, the toll collection in Maharashtra is a huge scam that runs into several crores. "We have been pursuing the issue for many years now. Thorough study of the tender document, number of vehicles passing through the toll plazas every day, suggests that toll collection should have stopped long back," he said.
The Sajag Nagrik Manch is still waiting for a reply from the CM to its letter demanding scrapping of toll collection on the Mumbai Pune Expressway.
The extent of protection given by the government to the illegal toll collection, according to Velkankar, is that monthly toll collection data is not made public, despite the Chief Information Commissioner of Maharshtra ordering it be done last year.
The Maharashtra Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) is responsible for the fare toll collection, which it is not doing by shielding the illegal toll collection, Velankar alleged.
According to Velankar, the toll collection companies have been under-reporting their collection. "We consider CM Fadnavis to be an honest politician. It was expected that he would take up the matter after taking over the office. We are surprised over his silence on such a critical issue, which is the hub of huge corruption," Velankar said.
Virendra Mhaiskar, Chairman and Managing Director of IRB could not be reached for his version. Repeated efforts to contact Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, also proved futile.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen