Recently I got an opportunity to interact with an official of National Highway Authority (NHAI) in a television debate on an Assamese news channel. In that debate broadcast from Guwahati, Mr. Alok Kumar, Regional Officer, North East Zone, NHAI, while justifying the opening of new toll gates in the state of Assam, admitted that the Indian government has no money to construct new roads and maintain those periodically. Therefore imitating the models of some developed countries the government of India is now trying to create a fund to construct and maintain the highways and therefore toll gates have been installed in every corner of this country. As a part of this initiative, during the Corona pandemic related lockdown the Assam state government and National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) have opened up a new tollgate at Nazirakhat near Sonapur, a decision that attracted vehement opposition from both the commuters as well as the local residents. With the opening of the Nazirakhat toll plaza, there will be two such gates (another one is at Raha) within 100km of each other and people heading from Guwahati towards Nagaon or vice-versa will have to pay double toll tax in their respective single journey. Another toll gate construction started Deudaur near Changsari, some 35 kms away from Guwahati, after the central government announced lockdown from 24 March. The local residents while protesting the opening of the new Nazirakhat toll gate have revealed that the concerned authorities have introduced this new gate without any notice and it would definitely push the people and commuters to face another economic hardship whose lives are already being severely affected due to the lockdown. Assam currently has the following functional tollgates —– Nazirakhat (Kamrup) and Raha (Nagaon) on NH 37, Patgaon (Kokrajhar), Dahalpara (Bongaigaon) and Madanpur (Kamrup) on NH 31 and Mikirati Hawgaon (Hojai) on NH 36 and Manderdisa (Dima Hasao). The Mr. Alok Kumar of NHAI earlier stated during the TV debate that the total revenue collection from all these toll plazas is likely to be around Rs 60 lakh per day.
Now the question is why should people pay toll tax for using the highways , why are citizens compelled to buy every service that are deemed to be provided by a state that is established on the principle of welfare economy and why do people have to face overburdened tax impositions on almost all utilities? Nitin Gadkari, the Minister of Road Transport and Highways, has often stressed that government’s resources is limited and hence toll revenue is essential. The minister told the Lok Sabha in July 2019 during a discussion that “toll collection cannot be done away with, ever. The government doesn’t have money. If you want good services, you have to pay. The toll system is here to stay.” Whenever there is any opposition to the toll system the easiest available response of the Indian State and ‘experts’ aligned to the state has been that the state treasury is shrinking because of the unlimited welfare measures adopted right from its formation and that the state cannot not sustain such measures in a competitive and liberal economy. Therefore like the governments of the developed capitalist world, to grow and sustain, every government has to adopt market oriented policies in every sphere where people get a service only after paying the stipulated price or tax. But, is this statement true and reliable? Does every developed country impose tax or price for every service that are provided by the state? Here, in the context of these claims, let us look at the examples of toll tax free road system of the United Kingdom and Germany.
In the United Kingdom ‘road tax’ doesn’t actually exist. It was abolished in 1937, along with the ‘road fund licence’. The existing car tax is imposed on tailpipe CO2 emissions above 100gm per km.This tax cannot be considered as a tax or toll for using the roads. Similarly, proceeds from Vehicle Excise Duty – a tax on vehicles, has never been considered in UK as a payment for use of roads. Such tax goes into the Consolidated Fund – the coffers of the Treasury, and all roads of the country are developed and maintained from the money of this treasury. The treasury is consisted of the contribution of those who pay income tax, council tax and VAT. Businesses which pay business taxes also contribute into the national coffers. Therefore this consolidated fund, the treasury’s pot of cash is what has been used to pay for everything in United Kingdom.
Germany also does not have a dedicated fund for building and maintaining highways. The annual federal budget incorporates all road construction projects and the country has listed certain revenues that have been used for highway construction and maintenance.The most important of the fixed revenues is the toll imposed upon freight traffic on federal highways. Though there has been an intense debate in Germany on the matter of introducing tolls for passenger cars on federal highways, still the country has not contemplated alternative means of highway funding, such as a vehicle-miles-travelled (VMT) tax. Moreover the German Government is thinking to introduce a toll scheme only on passenger cars registered in other countries, based on the theory that Germans already pay enough for automobile usage through the taxes on motor vehicles and gasoline.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the first phase of national lockdown in the evening of 24 March, immediately after that the Road Transport and Highways Minister had asked NHAI to suspend toll on all National Highways to ease transportation of essential goods and supplies. Apart from closing the toll gates the Union Minister Nitin Gadkari also asked NHAI Chairman and toll operators across National Highways to provide food, water and other necessary support to migrant workers who are facing severe hardship while being stranded at various parts of the country on account of a nationwide lockdown in the wake of corona virus pandemic. It is a pertinent question to ask that if the Central Government had decided in the very beginning of the first phase of the national lockdown to shut down all the toll gates in this country for reducing inconvenience of the people, how could the same government or the state governments re-open or construct new toll gates when the lock down is still in operation?
It is also worth mentioning that Nitin Gadkari’s oft repeated assertion – “… if you want good road, you have to pay” runs contrary to a 2018 judgement by Bombay High Court. A division bench of the Bombay High Court while hearing a PIL observed that properly maintained roads is a part of fundamental rights guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution of India. The Division Bench Observed-“Right to have roads in reasonable condition is a part of the fundamental right guaranteed under Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution of India. Existence of such fundamental right creates corresponding obligation in all the authorities … All steps should be taken to see that the citizens are not deprived of their rights.”
So if our roads have been constructed by using money from the government treasury and the state is obliged to provide good roads to its citizen as it’s fundamental right, then how is it that the state machinery imposes levy or tax from the citizen for using those very roads ?
Also the malicious act of re-opening and construction toll gates while a national lockdown in times of a global pandemic is in progress, when people cannot voice their disagreements or lodge their protest, is a backdoor fascist attack on the very idea of democracy and citizenry. It is a clear signal that the Indian state will, by hook or crook, relegate it’s citizenry to the status of a consumer bereft of any quality service and rights that is enshrined in the constitution.