The build operate and transfer (BOT) ghost is unlikely to leave Kochi anytime soon, despite the 13-year toll period of the Mattancherry BOT bridge expected to end in April 2014.

While the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) wants to stop the toll collection on April 26, 2014, the bridge’s builder company Gammon Infrastructure Projects Ltd has demanded much more than the construction cost of Rs 25.80 crore as compensation. Official figures state that the company has collected approximately Rs 42 crore as toll till February 2013. “It is now demanding Rs 67 crore as compensation, which may be scaled down,” GCDA sources said.

While the toll rates are hefty and unheard of at any other place in the State, the problems arose after the return toll clause in the agreement between the GCDA and Gamon was converted to multiple toll in 2001, following protests from bus and taxi car operators. They cited a huge increase in operational expenses as they plied multiple trips through the bridge each day.

Following this, the then UDF-led State government issued a Government Order in 2005 that extended the toll period by another six years. This GO was annulled and another one issued in 2007 by the subsequent LDF government that upheld the sanctity of the original agreement by which toll collection would end in 2014.

Gammon approached the High Court challenging this and the court called for arbitration to settle the issue, in 2009. Three judges are members of the arbitration panel.

As things stand, the builder has demanded Rs 67 crore as compensation to end the toll collection, said the Chairman of GCDA, N. Venugopal. “They have cited the annual compensation of Rs 1.50 crore for a period of 20 years; the ‘loss of expected revenue’ for six years and interest for the 13-year toll period.”

“Since we do not agree with the terms, they might settle for approximately Rs 31 crore as compensation,” Mr Venugopal said.

The Finance Department has reportedly objected to paying even this amount as ‘compensation’.

Arbitration ongoing

The GCDA and Gammon share the arbitration expenses, which comes to Rs 4 lakh per sitting. A sitting is held every three months and the total expense incurred on this count alone is around Rs 1 crore, all of which will be accounted for from public funds.

A Vigilance probe was ordered into the issue after social activist Khalid Mundapilly cried foul over toll collection and alleged that vested interests, including politicians, were behind the imposition of the hefty toll on motorists.

Mr Mundapilly alleged that there was a conspiracy behind moves to pay an ‘inflated’ amount as compensation to the builder company. “The extension of toll period by six years and the agreement to pay Rs 1.50 crore as annual compensation smells of a hidden agenda. Efforts are being made to understate the amount collected as toll each year, since the Accountant General had in its 2003 audit report, pointed out anomalies in toll collection,” he said.

Builder’s arguments

Gammon, has in the meantime, cited arguments like the toll rates being fixed since the bridge was commissioned and not increased each year based on the variations in the wholesale price index (WPI). It has entrusted Cochin Bridge Infrastructure Company to collect toll.

The residents of West Kochi fear the prospect of paying toll till 2020. They had earlier opposed the ban on cars and light vehicles through the parallel bridge that was built in the 1940s.

V.D. Majeendran, general convenor of Kochi Janakeeya Pratikarana Samithi, an NGO that was in the forefront of the anti-toll agitation, said that the builder firm has sought public funds as compensation. “We are totally opposed to the idea. In the wake of Cabinet meetings held recently, we gave a letter to the Chief Minister demanding adherence to the initial agreement under which toll collection would end in April 2014,” he said.

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