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Madhya Pradesh Toll Plazas Take Toll on Public

Kashif Kakvi |
Private firms which constructed 48 roads by spending Rs 6,939 crore have collected toll taxes of Rs 8,419 crore as of January 31.

Representational use only.Image Courtesy:Wikimedia Commons

Bhopal: A car driver pays Rs 280 toll tax for a 130-km trip from Ratlam to Indore, including Rs 160 for the 24-km Ahmedabad-Indore Highway, which leads to Indore. The tax amount comes to more than Rs 2/km.

Thus for travelling 130 km from Ratlam to Indore, one pays a toll tax of Rs 280, which comes to Rs 2 per km.

Similarly, three toll plazas on the 127-km Jaora-Nayagaon state highway charge a toll tax of Rs134 a car. In the same way, one has to pay Rs147 as toll tax for travelling on the 141-km Dewas-Bhopal Highway.

The three state highways are the lifeline of the Malwa-Nimar region connecting Ratlam, Mandsaur, Neemuch, Dhar and Dewas to Indore and Bhopal.

To reconstruct and to maintain these roads, three companies -- Essel Infra, Ashok Buildcon and Guj Info Petro Limited (GIPL -- entered into a 25-year contract with the state government between 2007 to 2009 under the build–operate–transfer (BOT) scheme.

After completing the work, these firms set up toll plazas on the highways to charge toll tax from vehicles to recover the cost.

According to the Madhya Pradesh Road Development Corporation (MPRDC), the firms spent over Rs 1,440 crore on construction of these roads, after taking loans from banks and government's grant of Rs 81 crore. But the firms collected toll tax worth Rs 4,829 crore by January 31, 2023, which is three-four times higher than the amount they spent.

The companies will collect toll tax for next 10 years, according to the data presented by the government in the Assembly, in reply to a question by Congress MLA Harsh Vijay Gehlot.

Besides these three highways, the Madhya Pradesh government has handed over 58 roads reconstructed under the BOT scheme, known as BOT roads.

 Out of 58, the contracts of nine BOT roads were cancelled and one is incomplete. The remaining 48 BOT roads, reconstructed with a cost of Rs 6,939 crore have collected toll taxes of Rs 8,419 crore by January 31, 2023 according to the MPRDC. The state government's share was Rs 500.27 crore from the profit.

The firms set up 69 toll plazas after completing the work to recover the expenses, according to the contract.

Three BOT Roads With Highest Toll Collection


Source: Vidhan Sabha/Supreme Court petition

A Bhopal-based transporter requesting anonymity told Newsclick that a toll tax of Rs 1.5-Rs 2.5/km is charged for using state highways. He added that a car must pay a toll tax of around Rs 700 on the 480-km Bhopal-Morena road on one side.

Similarly, the toll tax on the 190-km Bhopal-Indore road is Rs 217 and the 313-km Bhopal-Jabalpur road Rs 298, he said.  

One has to pay a toll tax of Rs 650 on the 540-km Bhopal-Rewa road and Rs 475 for the 464-km Bhopal-Balaghat road. 

“A train ticket for the sleeper class between Bhopal and Rewa is cheaper than the toll tax,” he said.

Madhya Pradesh’s bad roads were one of BJP’s poll planks with the party coming to power in 2003. From 2007 to 2009, the BJP government opted for the BOT scheme to fix highway potholes with the MPRDC handing over their reconstruction and maintenance to private parties for 25 years through tenders.

BJP and Congress MLAs from the Malwa-Nimar region have different opinions on many issues but are unanimous in their views on high toll taxes and poorly maintained highways. More than 12 legislators from the region often raised the problem in the Assembly in the last decade. A few of them even filed a petition in the Supreme Court. However, neither the government nor the court took action against these companies.

Half-a-dozen legislators from the region told Newsclick in the Assembly that the companies are earning huge profits from toll taxes in the name of maintaining roads and while not complying with the terms and conditions of contracts even after a decade.

Death traps

After several deaths were caused by accidents on poorly maintained roads in 2009-10 rocked the Assembly, then-Speaker Ishwar Das Lohani formed a committee comprising six MLAs from the region to see whether companies complied with the terms and conditions of contracts and the reasons for accidents.

The committee, headed by Mandsaur’s BJP MLA Yashpal Singh Sisodiya, came across 15 black spots on the Lebard-Jaora Highway and the Jaora-Nayagaon Highway, one of the major reasons for the fatalities. The panel also found that these companies did not reconstruct the nine old culverts on these roads.

“More than 5,000 people died on these two roads, which have more than 15 black spots and around 400 unauthorised cuts, in the last 14-15 years,” Sisodiya told Newsclick.

“Nine old culverts weren’t reconstructed. Lights, toilets, water and ambulance facility are missing, an important part of contracts. Two to three commuters die everyday,” he added.

The committee submitted its report to the government and recommended preventing accidents. “Apart from our committee, various MPRDC committees also submitted their reports after inspections when the issue rocked the Assembly. But the government took only partial measures to address the problem,” Sisodia pointed out.

“We call it the ‘Road of death’ (Maut ka Marg). After a decade-long fight, nothing has changed. It’s still one of the major issues for the legislators from the region,” he added.

According to the 2021 National Crime Records Bureau, 34 commuters died daily in the state in that year—one death every 42 minutes. Despite the brief lockdown in 2021, 12,480 commuters reportedly died in road accidents in Madhya Pradesh. More than 6,000 were killed in bike accidents and 1,934 in car accidents.

Madhya Pradesh is the second state with the highest road accidents at 48,219 after Tamil Nadu.

Many regional Congress leaders, including Harsh Vijay Gehlot, Kunal Choudhary, Pratap Grewal and Jitu Patwari, raised the issue in the 2023 Budget Session but to no avail.

“The state government has sold every inch of the highways to private players under the BOT scheme in the name of development. Private firms are making huge profits while commuters are suffering,” Choudhary, the MLA from Kalapipal, told Newsclick

Choudhary had raised the issue of excessive toll taxes in the Assembly terming it as “loot of public money” to help private firms increase their profits.

“The three companies making the highest profits are closely associated with the government. Businessman-turned-politician Subhash Chandra owns Essel Infra. Ashoka Buildcon owners have a close association with the chief minister and GIPL is a Gujarat-based company with a close association with the ruling party leaders,” Choudhary alleged. “Therefore, the government hardly takes action against them despite numerous complaints."

Gehlot pointed out toll taxes are “increased by 7% every year and the government also provided concessions. Instead of providing relief to the public, the government is framing anti -public policies”.

Despite repeated attempts, BOT Roads and State Highways-in-charge Suneel Jain was unavailable for comment.

A senior MPRDC official requesting anonymity said, “The firms took bank loans at an interest rate of 12%-18 %, which increased their costs. Besides, they built toll plazas and hired employees to run operations. The roads are repaired throughout the year. It’s not a one-time investment.”

Defending the government, he further said, “The state has dozens of BOT roads, but only a few make a profit because many of the routes don’t have substitute roads to divert traffic. In that case, single roads get more traffic and toll taxes.” 

When asked about the toll rates and accountability, the official said, “The MPRDC fixes toll rates based on the assessment of per kilometre cost and flow of vehicles. Besides, the introduction of electronic toll collection (ETC) has enhanced transparency in the collection. We seek a yearly audit report of their expenses and collection (conducted by an independent firm) and bank statements to keep a tab on the firms.”

According to the official, almost two years ago, the MPRDC took action against Essel Infra over a complaint of non-compliance with maintenance. “After a notice was sent to the company, it completed the maintenance work within six months.”

Petition in Supreme Court challenging toll tax 

Former Ratlam MLA Paras Saklecha filed a special leave petition in the apex court challenging the contract on toll taxes collected on the Lebad-Jaora and Jaora-Nayagaon highways after the Indore Bench of the Madhya Pradesh High Court (HC) dismissed his petition.

Saklecha pleaded that the private firms have already recovered their invested amount and are making profits from public money. 

After hearing the arguments, a Bench of chief justice DY Chandrachud issued a notice to the state government on November 27 last year giving a window of four weeks to reply. When the state government didn't respond, the court issued a similar notice to the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government on March 1.

The HC had dismissed the petition after the state’s then-additional advocate general Pushyamitra Bhargav argued, “The firm and the government have an agreement for 25 years which cannot be foreclosed in between and that would cost heavy liability and penalties to the government.”

According to the HC order, the “MPRDC is an expert body which has approved the terms of the agreement regarding the construction and maintenance of roads. The collection of tolls from these two roads is not only to recover the cost but will be used for maintenance and reconstruction of the road in the next 30 years. Therefore, the petition is nothing but a publicity stunt”.

Bhargav was elected Indore’s mayor in civic body polls held last year.

“A vehicle owner pays more than half-a-dozen taxes, including road tax. The price of petrol and diesel in Madhya Pradesh is second highest in the country due to heavy cess on both the products. Yet commuters are being charged for the construction and maintenance of roads and private firms are making huge profits out of it, which is in violation of the Indian Toll Act 1851,” Saklecha told Newsclick.

“The transportation of necessary goods, vegetables and other edible items has become costlier due to toll taxes,” he pointed out. “If the government can’t cancel the contracts, it should ask companies to comply with contracts and lower toll taxes to provide relief to commoners, who are already feeling the pinch of inflation,” he added.

“India is a welfare state where governments work for the people. But here it seems that the government is working against the people,” he alleged.

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