As unerringly as ever, Raj Thackeray and his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena have zeroed in on an issue close to the heart of the Marathi manoos with their campaign against toll booths. The issue is not too far away from the heart of the non-Marathis either, giving the MNS a rare opportunity to warm up to a wide cross-section of the state’s electorate shortly before the Lok Sabha elections. Toll plazas — now a ubiquitous feature on roads connecting the country’s metros to their hinterland, the site of factories and offices that provide bread and butter for the urban and suburban populace — have become a bane for commuters. This is not because they break up a scenic drive, but because they are seen as symbols of a corrupt system that allows the private sector to fleece the public. The perception may or may not be true. But since there is no overseeing of the collection of tolls by private operators, who are allowed by contracts made with the government to make up for their investment in road-building by collecting tolls, and the way this money is used, there is no way to alter this perception. On the face of it, the public should be the gainers. This kind of private-public partnership, practised in several other countries, allows a cash-strapped government to use private investment to build roads that it otherwise cannot provide, and also to ensure the maintenance of the infrastructure. But when the same system allows contractors to fudge books, or, to be fair to the other side as well, offers little protection to private investors from vandalism of the kind unleashed by the MNS, the public lose the game hands down.
In Maharashtra, as on the borders of Haryana and Delhi, where toll booths are regularly looted or set on fire, this loss may not be immediately visible. Here, politicians such as Mr Thackeray are busy raking in the gains. Ruling governments may also be moderating their response according to their electoral calculations. In Maharashtra, more support for the MNS means a loss for the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena tie-up and a boon for the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance. But if the mechanics of the build-operate-transfer system, which has driven most of the road-building in India, are not smoothed out soon, the public may have to pay a dearer price from the lack of growth in infrastructure.