Are the State’s National Highways Worthy of Paying Taxes For?
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Are the State’s National Highways Worthy of Paying Taxes For?

Kareng Engtipee Phukan | June 27, 2020 15:56 hrs

Taking the lockdown as an opportunity, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has opened new toll plazas in the state. 

In the last one month five toll gates have been initiated on National Highway (NH) 36-  Mikirati Hawgaon (From Nagaon to Lanka), NH 31 - Patgaon (From Kochugaon to Rakhaldubi), Dahalapara (From Rakhaldubi to Kalijhar), Madanpur (From Pathsala to Amingaon) and NH 37 - Nazirakhat (From Amingaon to Jagiroad). 

For the past few years various groups and organisations have been opposing the opening of the Raha toll gate time and again. Given the incomplete infrastructure of the highways and their pathetic condition with potholes, citizens have often questioned the government’s right to collect taxes for the same. 

Earlier, the protest over the Raha toll gate was even seen to have turned violent. The gate was first opened on 16th April 2015, without completion of construction work of the highway. But after massive opposition from 29 organisations, its operation was suspended. On 12th July, 2018 the government however reopened the plaza not giving the least heed to all the oppositions, only to again suspend the same within 24 hours after many groups protested under the leadership of peasant leader Akhil Gogoi. Reportedly, before the toll plaza’s reopening on 2018, its responsibility was entrusted to a private party, Indradeep Construction Company, in lieu of Rs. 10.59 lakhs per day to NHAI.

Claiming the toll gate in Raha as illegal, Gogoi pointed out that all toll gates across the country are set up as per the National Highway Fee (Determination of Rates and Collection) Rules, 2008. As per the rules, a toll plaza can be established beyond a distance of 10 kilometres from municipal or local town area limits. Under special circumstances, the executing authority does set up toll plazas within 10 kms, but never within 5 kms of a municipal or local town area limit. 

"But the Raha toll gate is located just two kilometres from the main town. In fact, the gate falls at the Ward No 7 of the Raha town committee. So, it is an illegal structure by the rules of the NHAI itself," Gogoi had then commented. 

Further, the same rules state that any other toll plaza on the same section of national highway and in the same direction shall not be established within a distance of 60 kms.

Citing the importance of toll gates in the state, transport minister Chandra Mohan Patowary has said that the state did not receive any funding from the central government for the construction of roads and hence the tax collection. The revenue collected will also be used for repairing works. Due to lack of funding, construction work of the highways had to be put on hold. Even Meghalaya has toll gates.  With the gates in place, the number of road weighbridges will increase which will curb the unruly overloading trucks that often causes major accidents on the highways.

Congress spokesperson and former Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) leader Kamal Kumar Medhi, speaking to G Plus said, “The government has opened five new toll gates during the lockdown. People are already economically lagging due to the lockdown. Moreover, rising fuel and food prices are draining people’s earnings. Will people be able to pay this extra toll gate tax? This is a purely unfair and unconstitutional step taken by the BJP government to torture its people. Indian citizens strongly stand up against this. Akhil Gogoi is a revolutionary voice. The government had wrongfully kept him imprisoned so that all projects he opposes against can be completed in the meanwhile, like the Subansiri Hydro Power Project, illegal coal mining, now toll gates and others. Had he been freed, Gogoi would definitely have protested and prevented these developments.”

BJP leader Pabitra Margherita said, "The concept of toll gates has not been invented by the BJP government. It was always there. Assam has far lesser number of toll plazas compared to other states. The government needs money for development in all sectors, be it education, health, infrastructure, etc. The coronavirus pandemic has degraded the state’s economy badly and the government needs finance to revive. So it’s natural to collect taxes. The toll gates are completely legal and constitutional."

“Taking the chance of lockdown, the government is stealthily collecting taxes,” said Pradyut Bhuyan of Congress. “I don’t disregard the concept of setting up toll gates. But are the highways good enough for collection of tax? We do not have proper quality roads, U-turns, barricades, subways, tunnels, etc on the highways. Then on what basis is the government collecting taxes? Moreover, toll gates are not supposed to be set up on busy roads. Has the government realized what would happen if an ambulance carrying emergency patient gets stuck in long traffic created by these toll gates? BJP is collecting taxes on highways that are equally used by man and animals taking the lockdown as a great opportunity,” he added.

Manoj Gogoi, President of Asom Yuva Mancha said, “We do not deny the importance of toll gates, but the construction of highways must be completed first and must be good enough with all necessary facilities for the people to pay tax. Any government must understand the economic difficulties people are facing in this lockdown. So is it feasible to add another tax at such times? They have locked Akhil Gogoi for months now only to fulfil the government’s vested interests.”

Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti President, Lakhyajyoti Gogoi said, "Usage of roads is a basic right of the citizens. So collecting of taxes for using roads is against the rights of the citizens. Had the BJP government developed these as express highways, then we could have supported the tax collection issue. But we have been using these same roads for years now. Further, national highways are constructed with our tax money, then why should we pay taxes again? We already pay insurance tax, license tax, road tax and many other hidden taxes while buying a vehicle. Also there is tax on fuel. Again this toll tax is not at all feasible. As per the toll tax rules, the construction company should give added facilities to the citizens that are not provided in Assam. The government is doing these things taking the privilege of the lockdown and keeping Akhil Gogoi lodged in jail for so long."

Rules for collecting toll gate fees

1. The concerned agency has to display its name, phone number for everyone to see.
2. Proper fee structure for different kinds of vehicles must be displayed clearly.
3. It is mandatory for every vehicle to pay the required toll fee.
4. If any commuter wishes to see the necessary documents of the fee collection agency, then the same is to be provided.
5. A vehicle, after paying the toll fee at one plaza, can travel 80 kms before the next fee is levied.
6. If a vehicle passes through the same toll gate twice in a day, then full fee will be levied for the first time, but only half the amount has to be paid the second time. However, the vehicle will have to report this to the agency the first time and collect an advance receipt for the return trip.
7. If the vehicle plies via the same toll gate regularly, then a monthly fee module can be collected from the agency.
8. If any vehicle refuses to pay the necessary fee, then the agency might keep any possible article/package that the vehicle is carrying as mortgage. And if the vehicle owner fails to clear the payment within the specified time, the mortgaged article may be sold to recover the toll fee.

Pre-paid toll gates

The toll gates are major causes of traffic congestion. To prevent such regular traffic jams, many developed countries have opted for digital toll or FASTag toll. It is a pre-paid method, wherein the pre-paid tag is attached to the windshield of the vehicle that is scanned at the toll plazas. This year IOC, BPCL and HPCL made such FASTags in India and have even come to an agreement with their affiliated petrol pumps for its sale.

Fee-structure

In 2007-08, NHAI issued rules with complete fee structure for every kind of vehicle. As per the rules the payment structure is given below:

Light vehicles - Rs. 0.65 per km, 
Medium weight commercial vehicle - Rs. 1.05 per km, 
Bus and truck - Rs. 2.20 per km
Heavy weight vehicle - Rs. 3.45 per km
Large size heavy weight vehicle - Rs. 4.20 per kms

Further, extra payment is levied for usage of bridges and tunnels present on the said highways. 

Exemption from toll gate fee: No fee shall be levied and collected from the President of India, the Vice-President, Prime Minister, Governor of a State, the Chief Justice of India; the foreign dignitary on state visit, other politicians holding post and para-military personnel, ambulance and fire services and also officials at work with NHAI. 

Further, if a vehicle has to wait for more than 3 minutes in a toll gate, then as per rule, the vehicle must be exempted from paying the fee as compensation.

Central Minister of Road Transport & Highways, Nitin Gadkari, commenting on the revenue earned from toll gates said, “India's toll revenue is likely to swell to Rs 1 lakh crore annually in the next five years on the back of initiatives like electronic toll collection programme, which is being implemented pan-India to remove bottlenecks. In total, there are 1.4 lakh kms of highway under NHAI, out of which 24,996 kms  are currently  under the toll ambit and the length will swell to 27,000 km by the year-end. 
Our toll revenue is Rs 30,000 crore per annum... As we are constructing more roads, we will move forward with the target in the next five years, the income from tolls gates to rise to Rs 1 lakh crore every year.”

Citizens of Assam would not have opposed the setting up of toll gates had those been imposed as per proper guidelines and after proper development of roads. Rather, it has been seen that many a time, toll charges have been unfairly raised against the set guidelines. People have opined that the current toll gates have been set up even in this pandemic situation without considering the financial crunch the people are in due to the lockdown, only for the government’s own benefit.

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