Car prices have not been a huge deterrent for buyers. They buy one, or even two, because they have the money, and if they don't have enough apart from the down payment, they go the mortgage route. Some do it as a car confers a status symbol. That is why new cars are made and sold, and the status of the economy is judged by the performance of the auto industry.
After buying a car, the owner ceases to crib about the up-and-down fuel prices, should they be forcing the hand of the government to remove road toll? Or more to the point, to enter and exit Mumbai? For a car, the five entry and exit points of the city, a toll of Rs 35 is levied per car.
The toll has become a political issue. So important that the BJP which came to power in Maharashtra had promised a toll-free state, but found it hard to keep it and over time, started whittling down the list of roads which are now toll-free. From 1 May, 2015 a dozen toll points were closed, and freed cars from paying for the passage at another 53, while other vehicles were not exempted from paying in case of the latter.
Now, the toll issue for Mumbai’s entry and exit has surfaced. According to a minister, the government was positive about exempting it. If that were done, the contractors would have to be bought out at about Rs 2,000 crore, or pay them around Rs 250 crore a year till 2031. That is not small change, especially for a state which has Rs 3.4 lakh crore of debt, having got into a debt trap in the mid-1990s.
For the implementation of the limited relief across the state, the government is compensating the contractors. Last fiscal, it paid nearly Rs 799 crore — a state which runs short of funds for almost anything, and optimises by hikes in rates for almost everything it can think of as an impost. This diversion helps none: Whatever a citizen saves likes this, he pays for it elsewhere.
There have been cases of some political parties, especially the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, and then the Shiv Sena physically preventing toll collections. Though there have been on-and-off instances, the issue kept simmering. However, we need to look if the cost of a toll ticket to cross a point is the grievance or not getting what you pay for is.
To a motorist, it does not matter if the toll collection is done by the Public Works Department, or the state-owned Maharashtra State Roads Development Corporation, which farms out the contracts. What irks – that is a mild word – the road user is the state of the road, regardless of who built it, and who collects the toll on whose behalf.
During monsoon, there is no road for which tolls are collected in good repair. As the monsoon progresses, the state of the roads worsen, and travel time and fuel consumption increase, and so do the wear and tear on the car. Perhaps, if the law of torts were invoked, the state or the parastatal organisation may be coughing up more than the tolls they are compensating for.
If the entry or exit out of Mumbai depended on the ability or willingness to pay Rs 35 per shot, then the user expects value for money. It cannot be that you pay up and then struggle on the roads. When it is actually raining, motorist cannot make out whether the road ahead was just wet or a deep pool. That is the scariest part of using the road, especially during the nights.
When the rains stop, you would have noticed not mere shallow potholes where the surface has been scrapped off by the vehicles passing over it, but holes, some of it craters. Motorcyclists have been badly hurt, and in the smaller towns around, even lost a life or two. It may be that most users who live within Mumbai and use the roads and flyovers also pay as a cess on fuel and on sales tax.
This gets the gander of the road users who have seen nothing improving despite, as in the case of Mumbai, the courts have had to step in and demand proper maintenance of the roads. The way poor work is done, and paid for, without even checking if the contractual specifications have been met, is a scandal. Not as a figure of speech, but really a scam. The authorities don’t mind blacklisted contractors getting another turn at doing another shoddy job.