A reply to an RTI application filed by a Ludhiana-based advocate has recently been doing the rounds on various social media platforms. The advocate - Hariom Jindal had filed for the Right To Information (RTI) last year because of inconvenience caused to him and many other commuters, but the post is going viral almost a year later.
It is for sure that every single person who has driven on Indian highways has at some point gone through the very same inconvenience that Jindal had gone through - waiting at toll booths for the long queue to clear up. Well, according to the RTI reply that Jindal got, the guidelines and rules set by the National Highway Authority of India state that the waiting time at any toll booth should not be more than 3 minutes.
Surprising? Well, yes. Most would be surprised, simply because of unawareness about this rule. The same issue had come up earlier this year and also in 2015, all at different locations. In 2015, the collector of a district located on the highway between Nashik and Satara approached the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) and asked them to pull up their sleeves in collecting tolls on the stretch.
The district administration had quoted the very same rule stated by the NHAI, and now the topic has come up again. According to the rule and as stated in the RTI writ copy, if made to wait for more than three minutes at the toll booth, the toll operator does not have the authority to impose a toll on the users.
Since toll is not a tax, and is a service fee, for which the consumer must get a service in return (usage of the road). Mr Jindal approached the consumer court of ludhiana to bring the public services provided by the NHAI under the jurisdiction of the consumer court. Mr Jindal's argument made sense, and this resulted in a landmark ruling.
This whole argument against the time-consuming process at Toll booths does make sense when looked at according to the rule. However, can it be implemented practically?
Firstly, a blanket rule cannot be implemented across the nation regarding this because of the variation in road sizes. So, If it is a 6-lane highway, it can be expanded at the toll booth to accommodate 10 or maybe 12 booths, but if it is a 2-lane highway, it would barely be able to accommodate 4-lanes at the toll booth. And the fact is, most of India has these 2-lane national highways. Adding to this is, the time factor.
The Vehicle in front has to move, then this vehicle has to be shifted into gear, and moved ahead. Most of the time, the vehicle's drivers do not have the exact amount to tender and end up giving a Rs 500 or even Rs 2000 currency note. The toll operator would then have to compute the transaction and return the remaining amount.
Now add to this, the kind of toll operator present in the booth, and how fast/slow he/she operates, and then you start getting the idea that, it is generally not possible to finish the whole transaction in a few seconds (like the rules would want it to happen).
The fast-track lane was introduced to counter this exact problem. But, once again, lack of awareness leads most people to get into the fast-track lane without having the fast tag. The toll operators decided to counter the issue by positioning an employee there too, collecting toll manually, and we are back to square one.
Though the idea of waiting at a toll for not more than 3 minutes is very lucrative and enticing, it does not seem like it can be implemented successfully. Well, not in all parts of India at least. Even if one expects to be let through the toll gates free of cost after waiting for more than 3 minutes, how would it be explained to the toll operators that it has been three minutes?
Would anybody want to waste some more time in arguing with the toll operators or just pay and leave? This is one of the many reason why this rule has stayed low even if genuine. Now add to this the fact that there are reports of the government rubbishing this rule, and you get where we are heading to.
What people have to understand is that the whole process of collecting toll does take time, depending on the road, the terrain, the kind of vehicle you are in and the toll operator. At the same time, the toll operators should not take advantage of the public and have to streamline their process and try to provide the best service to the public, because they are paying for it.