Ranchi, Sept. 9: The protests against toll tax along Ranchi-Hazaribagh stretch of NH-33 that managed to arm-twist National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) officials into promising concessions for Ramgarh in addition to Ranchi expose a worrying culture of expecting world-class infrastructure for free in a state that hardly has any.
Commuters of Jharkhand, which did not have a toll tax culture till recently, hate to shell out money to drive on mega expressways, bridges and four lanes, an unwillingness that the Opposition — Ajsu and BJP — as well as traders’ outfits are quick to exploit.
Road infrastructure, executed under PPP (public-private partnership) mode, costs hundreds of crores to build and needs regular investment for maintenance.
Mega PPP road and highway projects are standard practice nationally and globally to trim commuting distance for individuals as well as freight, saving time and fuel.
Toll collection is a key part of the business model to make it sustainable.
Asked for his reaction to the protests, NHAI project director Awadhesh Kumar maintained imposition of toll as well as the rates is being done according to “central guidelines”.
“Commuters should not feel the pinch,” he said.
Off the record, NHAI officials, however, are feeling jittery.
Adityapur Toll Bridge, in Seraikela-Kharsawan, the first such PPP venture of Jharkhand, is already in the red. Former chief minister Arjun Munda exempted two-wheeler toll as a populist gesture. Revenue generation from cars, trucks and multi-axle vehicles is much lower than was projected, as many take the dilapidated Kharkai bridge detour to save on toll.
“Most people in Jharkhand haven’t travelled extensively even within India. They don’t know about the concept of tolled roads and highways. Driving on new-age roads saves fuel, time and vehicle wear and tear. Indirectly, commuters save more than what they pay as toll,” said a state road construction department engineer.
“The state road construction department budget can’t envisage huge sums needed for annuity to construction companies. Toll is a must to sustain roads,” a senior bureaucrat added.
JSW Steel Ltd former chief executive officer R.P. Singh said protests against toll were a long-term ploy to keep masses away from quality roads.
“This should not be allowed. If anyone feels toll rates are on higher side, organise a meeting between representatives of the people, state and NHAI and thrash it out. Take toll tax not as an evil burden but as a necessary and regular investment for maintenance of high-quality infrastructure,” he said.
The state plans to levy toll in at least two stretches — Ranchi-Patratu and Adityapur-Kandra roads — but is closely monitoring the developments of the Ranchi-Hazaribagh stretch before taking a call.
But the climate of misunderstanding, protest and reluctance is the norm in Jharkhand.
Tenders for major national highway revamp projects under build-operate-transfer (BOT) basis, with toll collection as part of the package for the concessionaire (construction major) concerned, were aborted as no agency came forward for 10 years between 2000 and 2010.
The reasons cited were three — no guarantee of getting back invested money from toll; poor law and order, including Naxalism; and volatile political situation.
From 2010-11, projects were handed over to construction majors on BOT-annuity basis under which NHAI was expected to collect toll tax and pay a fixed annual sum as annuity to the construction firm that initially invested the entire sum.
In 2010-11, a consortium of IL&FS and Punj Lloyd was the first to get Ranchi-Hazaribagh project worth over Rs 625 crore. The project, almost ready barring a bypass on Ramgarh district town, sparked protests after toll was announced last week. The Barhi-Hazaribagh section of NH-33 has been awarded to an Abhijeet Group company on BOT-toll basis. However, the Rs 400 crore project is staring at delays due to the executing agency’s financial constraints, making NHAI worried.
Another leg of NH-33, from Vikas Vidyalaya (near Ranchi) to Mahulia (near Jamshedpur), which includes two phases of Ranchi Ring Road and cuts through Rampur, Bundu, Tamar, Chowka and Chandil, is a Rs 1,500-crore four-lane project. Its foundation stone was laid early this year, with a tentative deadline of mid-2015, while construction major Madhucon was awarded the work on BOT-annuity basis. However, the work is yet to speed up.
The other four-laning project from Mahulia to Baharagora and Kharagpur, a Rs 940 crore project, will also be executed under BOT-annuity basis. The onus of collecting toll is on NHAI. Work has yet not started.
India has some 10,000 km of highways under toll with about 200 manual collection centres.