Saturday, 29 August 2015

Supreme court;"no toll for bad roads".

NEW DELHI: In what will be music to the ears of long suffering highway users, the Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and concessionaires cannot collect toll from commuters if the road is in bad shape.Road users have had a long-standing grouse that they were fleeced by concessionaires who charged hefty toll on stretches of dilapidated national highways. They also believed that private contractors were enriching themselves while the NHAI looked the other way. 

When a case relating to high toll on the poorly maintained 26-km Raipur-Durg stretch on NH-53 came before it, a bench of Justices T S Thakur and Kurian Joseph appointed a committee to inspect the road condition. 



The committee headed by a retired district judge gave a stinging report about the road condition. This led the bench to tell the NHAI and concessionaries - "no toll for bad roads". 

"General public should not be made to suffer on both counts - bad roads and hefty toll," the bench said while ordering the concessionaire to refund Rs 11 crore it had collected as toll to the central government, which had taken over the road from the private party in March. 

The central government wanted to score a point by informing the court that it had acted reasonably by reducing the toll by 60% since taking over the highway for repair work. But the court was unwilling to allow commuters to pay such charges when the condition of the 26-km stretch was poor. 

However, taking into account the Centre's plea that the entire stretch was not completely damaged and that the road was motorable in parts, the bench rescinded the central notification ordering collection of toll at 40% of the earlier rate and directed that the new toll would be 20% of the earlier fee. 

The case would not have got such attention from the apex court had a PIL petitioner Lal Manohar Pandey not approached the Chhattisgarh High Court complaining against the pot-holed 26-km Raipur-Durg stretch, on which the concessionaire extracted hefty toll. The HC order was challenged in the SC by the private contractor. 

The SC said the central government could charge toll at 20% of the original fee till the road was fully repaired and a completion certificate was filed with the ministry of road transport after inspection by the committee headed by the retired district judge. 

The ministry of road transport and DSC Ventures Pvt Ltd had entered into a concession agreement on May 8, 2003 for construction, operation and maintenance of Raipur-Durg section of NH-53 on a build, operate and transfer basis. 

Importantly, the court after disposing of the matter said there was a need for penalizing heavy vehicles guilty of overloading. "It results in great loss to the exchequer as they not only evade tax but cause huge damage to roads," the bench said. It posted the petition along with pending matters before the bench hearing cases relating to overloading by goods carriers.

The court is right when it says that the NHAI or private concessionaires should not be allowed to collect the normal toll if the relevant road is in a state of disrepair. After all, the toll is a price that the road user is paying in return for the assurance that he will get a well-maintained road to drive on. Where that assurance is not met, the very basis for the toll ceases to exist. 
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