Information about free passage at a toll plaza if the waiting period is more than 3 minutes has been widely shared on social media in the last few days. Our investigation reveals that no such rule exists.
Social Media has been abuzz with the following news for the last 3 days. The news refers to a RTI reply from the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) which says if a vehicle is delayed for more than 3 minutes at a toll plaza, then one needn’t pay the toll tax. This reply was given to one Mr. Hariom Jindal, an advocate from Ludhiana. The reply was given by the Project Director of NHAI in their unit office in Jalandhar. Our investigation shows that no such rule exists.
Toll Plazas & Waiting time
Long queues and congestion at toll plazas has been a concern for a long time. In 2015 and again in 2016, the Member (Finance) of NHAI had written to all regional offices of NHAI expressing concern at congestion at various toll plazas.
In his letter, he mentioned two specific provisions that are part of various concession agreements signed with the toll plaza operators. These provisions talk about the maximum waiting time or number of vehicles in queue in peak hours at toll plazas.
- Not more than 6 vehicles per lane in queue in the peak hours; or
- The number of toll lanes/booths shall be such as to ensure the service time of not more than 10 seconds per vehicle at peak hour flow. The number of toll lanes shall be increased, if the maximum waiting time of the users exceeds 3 minutes.
In this letter, the concerned official also suggested actions to be taken in each case as in the image below.
Are these provisions found in any concession agreement?
The provisions mentioned in the letter of NHAI official are found in various concession agreements. For e.g.,in the concession agreement signed with Navayuga Devanahalli Tollway Pvt. Ltd in 2010, for the Hyderabad-Bangalore highway, the second provision was included.
Since the RTI reply was from Ludhiana, we also checked the concession agreement of Panipat-Jalandhar section of NH-1 that passes through Ludhiana. This also had a similar provision.
So what if these provisions are violated?
While there is no clear answer in the concession agreements about what happens when these provisions are violated, the letter of NHAI official and various other documents of the NHAI give us the answer. These documents talk about expansion and other means of addressing the problem. We did not find the free passage provision in case of a waiting time of more than 3 minutes in any document of the NHAI.
The NHAI official in his 2016 letter to all regional offices specified the following actions as listed in the image below. The measures include deploying additional toll collectors with handheld devices, expansion of toll plazas to meet the demand and staggered arrangement of toll collection.
So what about the RTI reply?
While we are still trying to find out the reason behind such a reply from the NHAI Jalandhar office, other things make it clear that no such rule exists.
The toll operator in Ludhiana denies presence of any such provision: Soma Isolux, the toll plaza operator in the Panipat – Jalandhar section of NH-1 that also passes through Ludhiana had written to the NHAI project director at Ambala in March 2016 regarding waiting time at toll plazas. In its letter, the toll operator mentions the issue of forcible release of traffic during peak time and that no such provision is part of the concession agreement. It is also mentioned in the letter that forcible release of vehicles is initiated upon telephonic directions from authorities. The letter also mentions that such forcible release will cause a loss to the government exchequer.
Forcible release of vehicles only a random action: An article in the Tribune earlier this year acknowledges long delays at this particular toll plaza near Ludhiana on the Panipat – Jalandhar section and quotes a NHAI official as saying that gates are opened whenever there are long delays and complaints from Public. The NHAI official is quoted as asking people to call the control room number or use the complaint register at the toll plaza. The article also quotes that between November 5, 2015, to January 26, 2016, the district administration had provided free access at the toll plaza randomly & over 14, 815 vehicles crossed the toll without paying.
Is enforceable only when it is part of the contract: The Times of India also did a story on the RTI reply in which the Deputy Commissioner of Ludhiana is quoted as saying that this matter has been discussed at various levels and the free passage can be enforced only if it is specified and listed in the contract between the toll operator & NHAI.
All the above make it amply clear that no such rule for free passage exists and the 3-minute timeline is an indicator to increase the capacity of the toll plaza. The incidents of free passage have been random and were enforced by district authorities whenever there was a long delay.