Can vehicle owners decline to pay toll if they have been kept waiting in queue for more than 3 minutes at any of the toll plazas at a national highway? Yes, says an RTI reply by an NHAI official to a query filed by Ludhiana based lawyer Hariom Jindal. This RTI reply dated August 29, 2016, provided by Col N K Jain, a project director from NHAI Jalandhar states that if any vehicle exceeds the 3 minute waiting time, then there is 'a provision to pass the vehicle free of cost'.
But the joy of vehicle owners troubled by long queues at toll plazas was short-lived as NHAI issued a clarification on July 20 this year where they dismissed the existence of any such provision. NHAI’s General Manager (Operations) Udeep Singhal clarified that “there is no provision of exemption to User Fee in case time taken for crossing the plaza is more than 3 minutes.”
After several attempts and persistent phone calls, BOOM spoke to Udeep Singhal who sounded agitated that the issue still needed clarification. He refused to comment on Col. N K Jain’s RTI reply and reminded us that the clarification issued on the NHAI website is the final order that has to be followed by all vehicle owners.
But can NHAI dismiss the confusion created by their own RTI reply through a single clarification. Especially when there are several letters of correspondence between its top officials and toll operators regarding complaints by vehicle owners.
Does a 3-minute maximum waiting time exist?
The RTI reply was not the first to mention the 3-minute deadline for vehicles arriving at a toll booth. NHAI’s then Member-Finance Satish Chandra first mentioned the maximum waiting time in a letter dated May 21, 2015 where he reminds provisions in the concession agreement that mandates increasing toll lanes if the maximum waiting period exceeded 3 minutes. Chandra also proposed several measures to enforce the provisions in the agreement.
On February 24, 2016, Chandra issued a circular where he quoted the May 2015 letter and once again reiterated the need to take up expansion of toll plazas to avoid long queues.
Interestingly, none of these letters mention the option of opening the gates if the vehicles are stuck for more than three minutes.
Fact check website Factly explains 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, writes Factly.
But when BOOM spoke to Satish Chandra who has since then moved to Punjab state government as additional chief secretary, he said,
“These provisions are part of the contract signed between NHAI and the toll operators. There is an option available to open the gates and allow the vehicles to pass through when the queues get longer.” - Satish Chandra, Former Member-Finance, NHAI
It is unclear why present and past officials of the National Highway Authority of India are contradicting each other and if there are indeed provisions in the contracts not made public that allow vehicle owners to pass through when the queues get longer.
Hariom Jindal, the lawyer who filed the RTI is clearly not amused by the turn of events where an RTI reply given by a top official has been contradicted by the organization itself. He points out that nowhere in his RTI question did he ask for an exemption to pay toll. He only asked if there was a provision for compensation if the vehicle faces delay beyond the stipulated time agreed between NHAI and the toll operator.
NHAI's RTI reply on 29th August, 2016
“In the RTI reply, NHAI clearly informed that there is a provision to pass the vehicle free of cost after 3 minutes. Why is the NHAI office trying to scuttle the rule and force people of India to suffer due to ineffectiveness and inefficiency of government appointed toll fees collecting contractors?," - Hariom Jindal, RTI Activist
In the past, several messages on social media and WhatsApp groups mentioned the existence of an yellow line at toll collection points in Maharashtra. A widely shared Hindustan Times article published on July 22, 2016 quotes the state's public works minister Eknath Khadse as saying,
“People have no objection in paying the toll but don’t like waiting in the queue for hours. Heavy traffic congestion make them wait in queues for long adding to their woes. Toll nakas will be asked to leave vehicles without collecting toll at the time of heavy traffic congestion.” - Eknath Khadse
Shinde gave this statement in the Upper House, replying to a debate during calling attention motion.
BOOM spoke to Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) officials who made it clear that no such rule to exempt vehicle owners exists. A fact confirmed in an RTI reply given by MSRDC in May this year. Responding to an RTI query on the number of toll operators who did not follow the yellow line rule, Muktesh Wadkar, public information officer, MSRDC, said, “There is no such government resolution or notification in the same regards," reports The Asian Age.
In the RTI reply, MSRDC stated that it has received 51 complaints or grievances from toll payee citing that the toll operators are not following the yellow line rule, reports The Asian Age.