The recent attacks by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena activists on toll booths in Maharashtra are to be condemned. However valid their protest against paying road toll may appear, it does not legitimise violence. Such acts at one level exposes the uncertainties involved in collecting toll, which could potentially harm plans to build an extensive road network. At another level, they highlight public concern over opaque ways of determining road-user charges. The government, which is trying to find ways to ensure safe ways of toll collection, must bear in mind that both issues are inextricably linked. Since 2000, the Central government has been promoting the levy of toll as an important tool to finance road construction. It now considers toll as being indispensable to attract private investment. The existing rules permit investors on road projects to charge users for an agreed period and retain the amount collected. To the investor, the projected rate of return of 14 to 16 per cent looks attractive. The Central government plans to build the bulk of the 10,000 km of national highways and 1,000 km of expressways in the next four years as toll roads, with private investment. State governments are taking a similar route to upgrade road networks.
However, in recent times investors have started to complain that their revenues are less than projected because of imprecise traffic estimates. As a 2012 study on Indian toll roads done by Flitch Rating, an international company that evaluates project finance, shows, the figures of actual usage of many roads are less than the projected figures. Protests against tolls only add to their woes and increase risks, developers lament. These issues need quick remedies, and so does the plight of users. Unlike other parts of the world where alternative toll-free roads are available in a given route, in India there are hardly any. Those who find the user charges steep and want to take an alternative route, even if it is longer and winding, have no option. Governments too overlook the improvement of alternative routes, to reduce leakage of toll revenue. Second, as cities expand rapidly, toll roads on the periphery, originally conceived as inter-city roads, become part of the city. The toll plan does not accommodate such changes in travel patterns. This causes hardships to users and increases resentment. Another contention is that even before roads are completed, toll charges commence. It is possible to remove distrust about tolls by bringing in transparency in the contracting process. The projected traffic volumes, estimated revenue collection and details of actual amounts collected should be available in the public domain. The long-term solution, however, lies in treating roads as a public good and spending more government funds on developing them.