Posted On Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 08:51:59 AM
|MNS claims that the toll collection on various roads across the state is unjustified
In Maharashtra there is a controversy about tolls. They seem to have erupted everywhere, as new roads and highways are built. In the (bad) old days, when the motherland was divided into jaagirs (fiefdoms), the local chieftain had complete freedom to put up a toll barrier on entry and exit into the local jaagir.
The jaagir itself was a lifetime land grant from the monarch, which gave complete freedom to the jaagirdar to tax in his local kingdom. This system was introduced by the Sultans of Delhi in the 13th century, adopted by the Maratha kings, and later continued by the British. The Government of India abolished it in 1951.
In modern India there are no official or legal jaagirs (but you wouldn’t believe it!). There are stories of travellers getting waylaid with arbitrary tax collectors on various roads of the country. Along the Grand Trunk Road many stories have been reported on the rangdari tax, or illegal extortion collected by village hoodlums.
This system was personally experienced by Kaushik Basu (India’s Chief Economic Advisor) as a young field researcher. There can be a risk to life and limb, but the thrill of experiencing it (in erstwhile Bihar) was too much to miss. Basu has written about this experience in his book, and he was impressed that the local village hoodlums were approved by the village panchayat, or elders.
They operated an illegal toll booth outside village limits along the Grand Trunk Road, by brandishing a gun, and extorted money. They also gave out a receipt, which meant that you didn’t have to pay any toll in any other place in their jaagir. Basu then goes to on to marvel whether the modern state, i.e. the government itself is not an elaborate but legal “extortion scheme” (not exactly his words though).
This idea has found expression from a variety of authors, down the ages and from different parts of the world. This is the viewpoint which sees governments as inherently coercive, and hence advocate the slogan “small government is good government”. But without going into the larger philosophical debate, we must consider whether the current allegation of excessive toll collection is valid or not. The activists of Maharahstra Navanirman Sena (MNS) claim that toll collected on various roads is much more than what is justified in terms of costs, or bids.
The private contractors bid for the right to collect tolls, by bidding for the contract. Then they are free (to some extent) to decide on the toll amount. If you assume a longer payback period (say 20 years) then even a small toll can lead to amountain of collection. But for shorter payback periods, you need higher tolls.
Moreover the tolls also have to be justified on the basis of road repairs, and general conditions. Unfortunately it is often not clear whether toll contractors are also responsible for road repairs. They are simply collecting through “annuity” what the government has spent on constructing the road or highway.
The responsibility for repairs continues to be with government. The proliferation of arbitrary tolls is an all India problem. It is particularly acute in states like Uttar Pradesh. As states lose autonomy of tax collection (for example when the country shifts to GST completely), they try finding newer ways of milking revenue, such as road tolls.
This adds to inefficiency, congestion, road rage and possibly corruption. But tolls are not completely avoidable, because they also serve as “user charges”, i.e. only the road users pay them.
Thus they reduce the burden of general taxation, which affects both users and non – users. It is however incorrect to assume that only rich people pay tolls. Tolls affect poor people through increased bus fares. And many people who graduate from poor to middle class, Nano owners also pay tolls eventually.
Transparent and powerful President
This refers to Ajit Ranade’s column last week ‘Electing India’s next president’ (PM, June 16). I feel it is only a matter of time before Presidential candidates come under the ambit of Model Code of Conduct (MCC).
As Ranade has pointed out, such a move will then give us the most transparent President so far. His observations assume significance against the backdrop of a growing demand for accountability from elected representatives.
Secondly with reference to the author’s debate over uncertainty regarding presidential polls in India, I feel although the President has the powers to take crucial decisions, his/ her role has always been restricted because of the meddling by the ruling class.
- Prabhat Sharma