Mumbai:

Mumbai: The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra has gone back on its electoral promise of a toll free Maharashtra. State minister for public works department (PWD) Chandrakant Patil told the state legislature last week that a complete road toll waiver was not on the government agenda.

“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," Patil said in the legislative council, responding to an opposition sponsored motion asking the government why it has not kept its electoral promise.

Patil said the agreements signed by the previous government with toll contractors for several road projects do not provide for a buy back option which the government could have exploited to scrap the agreements by paying compensation. “The new policy being drafted will provide for the buy back option," Patil said.

Two of the highest toll-collecting contracts are the Mumbai-Pune Expressway and the toll plazas at five Mumbai entry points.

Road construction company IRB Infrastructure has the contract to collect toll on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway; MEP Infrastructure Developers Ltd collects toll at the five Mumbai entry points.

The promise of a road toll free Maharashtra was part of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance’s joint manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections even though levying road toll is a state subject. For the Maharashtra elections in October 2014, which the BJP-SS contested against each other, both the parties avoided including this promise in their election manifestoes but their leaders spoke about it in the campaign.

“The assembly election manifesto did not promise a completely toll-free Maharashtra. What we promised was a restructuring of the toll collection policy so as to make it less burdensome for the small vehicles. This is being done now," said BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari.

Patil also told the legislative council that the government had completely shut 12 toll plazas across the state and exempted small vehicles, state transport buses, and school buses from paying the tax from 1 June 2015. A Right to Information query has revealed that the government paid 798 crore to the toll contractors as compensation for scrapping their toll collection agreements before their recovery terms ended.

Vivek Velankar, president of the Pune-based Sajag Nagrik Manch, a public watchdog, insisted that the BJP had indeed promised a completely toll-free Maharashtra. “It did not promise a partial waiver of toll. It said it would make Maharashtra toll-free. Now the minister is saying they cannot do it and this is a great betrayal," Velankar said.

Velankar, a Right to Information activist, has challenged toll collection on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway and at five toll plazas in Mumbai where vehicles have to pay toll to enter the city.

“This government does not have the will to either shut the toll plazas on Mumbai-Pune Expressway and Mumbai entry points or even waive toll for small vehicles on the Expressway and Mumbai entry points," Velankar said.

He substantiated his claim by pointing out the long time a government-appointed committee has taken in submitting its report on ways to shut toll plazas on the Expressway and Mumbai entry points or at lease provide concession to small vehicles.

“The committee was appointed in June 2015 and it was asked to submit report in a month. But the report has not been submitted to date and now, another extension has been given till 30 April. This proves the government does not want to provide a solution," Velankar said.

Even for those toll plazas which have been shut and others where exemption has been given to small vehicles, the government is paying 798 crore to the contractors, Velankar said.

“This is not a one-time payment as compensation. It is an annual amount the government has agreed to pay as compensation for terminating the contracts early. This is public money which is being paid to the contractors and hence it is not a real toll waiver because people are still bearing the cost of this toll waiver," Velankar said.

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