Mumbai: Last week, Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan asked public works minister Chhagan Bhujbal to undertake a comprehensive review of the state’s so-called build, operate and transfer (BOT) project policy for the road sector.
This followed a spate of attacks on toll plazas that started on 12 January, with activists of the Anti-Toll Action Committee (ATAC) burning down four toll plazas of IRB Infrastructure Developers Ltd in the southern Maharashtra city of Kolhapur.
Subsequently, workers of the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) vandalized toll plazas in various parts of the state.
Chavan’s action will not help him win the confidence of either the voters or the investors.
Indeed, anger over tolls in the western state is not new. Both social activist Anna Hazare and MNS leader Raj Thackeray have made noise over this issue in the past couple of years.
The state managed to pacify Hazare with an assurance of appointing a panel to look into the issue of tolls.
After the initial outbursts, the MNS suddenly decided to file a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay high court. This is yet to come up for hearing. It is inexplicable why the MNS, not known for using constitutional methods of agitation, decided to file a PIL.
Many are not against the tolls per se but they feel there is no transparency in the manner in which the contracts for tolled roads are given out and that the government is literally taking them for a ride for the benefit of a few contractors.
For example, the National Highways Authority of India’s (NHAI’s) norms say the distance between two toll plazas should be at least 80km but the Maharashtra government’s policy uses a vague terminology and fixes the distance between two toll plazas at 35-40km. It has never explained why the distance between two plazas should be brought down by half.
Besides, on toll roads, BOT contractors are supposed to provide facilities such as ambulances, toilets and eateries, but except for a few roads like the Mumbai-Pune expressway and the Mumbai-Nashik highway, hardly any other toll road has these facilities.
Contractors are also supposed to maintain the roads during the so-called concession period, when they enjoy the right to collect the toll; but, except in a few major highways, the contractors don’t seem to be interested in taking care of damages caused by usual wear and tear. Officials from the public works department are rarely seen being pro-active and compelling contractors to do their job.
Then there are questions on the manner in which the tendering process is carried out. No one knows who, how and when the traffic surveys are carried out, how the toll fee is fixed, how the period for which a contract is given is calculated, or what formula is used for increasing the fee every year.
Following Hazare’s agitation, the state government appointed a committee under a retired chief engineer of the public works ministry, C.P. Joshi. One of the recommendations of the committee was that all toll plazas in the state be connected with a central server in the public works ministry’s headquarters to monitor actual toll collection. But three years have passed and the state government has not taken any step to implement the recommendation.
The logic behind the recommendation was simple—the state will be able to capture data on actual traffic movement against projected traffic movement in real time, and if a contractor is earning more revenue than was estimated, the government can advance the date of making a road toll-free.
It’s not just that the citizens are angered over the state’s inaction on the issue, even investors have become wary of putting money in BOT road projects in the state. In August, none of the short-listed consortiums for the 22-km Mumbai trans harbour link, connecting Sewri in the island city and Nhava-Sheva across the creek, submitted financial bids.
IRB was one of the short-listed companies. Its chairman and managing director Virendra Mhaiskar, citing their experience at Kolhapur, bluntly told the state government that the company was not submitting a financial bid because it was not confident whether the state would be able to protect its investment. The firm completed the Kolhapur road project in 2011 but has not been able to start collecting toll till date.
If, indeed, the state wants to attract private investment in BOT projects without creating resentment among the people, the only way to do that would be to usher in a transparent policy on bidding out such projects. This will protect the interest of both the citizens as well as the investors.