There is much public anger in Assam against toll gates over highways charging extortiote toll taxes from all kinds of passing vehicles. Enraged locals recently burnt down the toll gate at Roha. Construction of a toll gate at ziraghat near Sopur on the outskirts of Guwahati was halted after public protests. The issue came to a boil after KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi castigated the Central government for allotting companies to collect tax from tiol highways through toll gates at different points in the State. The peasant leader recently took on operators of the Roha toll gate ostensibly working for a contractor group, questioning why they were collecting toll taxes when the construction of that stretch of NH 37 is yet to be complete. What is more, these operators could not furnish papers or identity cards, and were not clad in uniform. After a meeting between the gaon district administration, the tiol Highways Authority and the KMSS, it was agreed to suspend tax collection at the Roha toll gate until all regulations are implemented. The Union Transport and Highways minister Nitin Gadkari on his just-concluded visit to the Northeast made it clear that the Central government will install toll gates on all highways it builds in the region, since it costs money which the government does not have. The minister has pointed out the expenses in building all-weather, concrete roads in NE states for which users must pay. Now the Highways Fee (Determition of Rates and Collection) Rules, 2008, which deals with toll-related issues, have been formulated to meet the requirements of tiol highway development, their maintence as well as to fulfil the aspirations of the land users. However, Gadkari recently informed Parliament that the Central government is mulling over a proposal ‘to provide relief to maximum number of people paying toll tax on roads and highways.’
If the toll policy is revised soon, it should be implemented in Assam too with full transparency. This is because there are allegations galore against toll gates operated by illegal syndicates hand-in-glove with corrupt sections of the administration. For long, it had been alleged that the toll gate at the Koliabhomora bridge was operated by some Youth Congress workers. After the permitted collection period for the lessee ended on 22 February this year, the gaon branch of the tiol Highways Authority collected taxes at the toll gate up to 30 April last, after which the NHIDCL was supposed to take over. But taking advantage of a gap period during this handover, a group of local Youth Congress workers reportedly collected taxes from motorists without any authorization, for which a case was lodged. The next day itself, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi ordered closure of the Koliabhomora toll gate and said he will demand scrapping of all such installations proposed by the Centre on the four-lane highway. Upping the ante further, the Chief Minister said there should be no toll gates in a state like Assam where the people are not well-off to pay toll taxes every time they use some highway. The question turally arises as to why Tarun Gogoi has woken up so late to the road toll issue. Has it something to do with the changed politics at the Centre? Be that as it may, Gadkari has now pleaded ignorance about illegal syndicates operating toll gates in Assam. He has also refuted allegations of toll gates in the State charging excessive toll taxes, throwing down a challenge to aggrieved people to file RTI applications and move the courts if there is proof of such extortion. The Union minister’s challenge needs to be taken up in right earnest because it is known that toll gates like the one at Roha was charging toll taxes around 5-6 times more than taxes charged by toll gates on Delhi-Gurgaon expressway and on the Mumbai highway entry points. If motorists in Assam are paying more taxes at legitimate toll gates than motorists in Delhi or Mumbai where highway conditions are incomparably better, then surely this is another scam that needs be exposed. As for illegal toll gates, these need to be busted forthwith as they are bleeding transporters dry and badly hindering commercial activities in the State. It is the consumers who ultimately bear the burden of this blatant loot on the highways.