For whom the Punjab highway toll?

December 13th, 2008 - 11:34 am ICT by IANS  

Chandigarh, Dec 13 (IANS) A 130-km long highway in Punjab seems to have hit potholes with many questioning why the road was handed over to a private operator who is collecting hundreds of rupees from motorists as toll fee every day.The Ropar-Balachaur-Hoshiarpur-Dasuya highway was handed over to the private operator, Rohan-Rajdeep Tollways Limited, in May 2005 by the previous Congress government in the state. The company re-carpeted the existing road at a cost of over Rs.1.02 billion (Rs.102 crore)

“Charging toll on this road is completely unjustified. The highway is not even four-laned,” Rajiv Bali, chairman of the Punjab committee of the PHD Chamber of Commerce, told IANS.

A senior public works department (PWD) official said here: “The operator would collect billions of rupees during this period. It is a big loss for the public.”

The highway, which is a straight link to Pathankot and Jammu from Punjab, was handed over to the private operator on a build-operate-transfer (BOT) basis even though there were enough funds with the state government for the same road.

The private operator has been allowed to collect toll by the state government for a period of 17 years even though neither a new road nor a four-lane facility has been built for motorists.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in April this year objected to the handing over of the highway (state highway No.24) to the private builder despite over Rs.1.03 billion lying with the state government. The funds were sanctioned by the central government to the Punjab government under the central roads fund (CRF).

The CAG report pointed out that the state government deliberately did not use the allocated funds and let these be forfeited.

When the CAG objected, Punjab’s chief engineer, in a reply, pointed out that “allotting the work on BOT was the prerogative of the state government”. But he could not justify why the project, for which funds were freely available, was handed over to the private operator.

The reply by the chief engineer was not accepted by the CAG which clearly stated that “the execution of road work on BOT has burdened the public with toll tax, even though the government had CRF credit, which could have been availed”.

The CAG even suggested that the erring officials be prosecuted for burdening the public with the tolled road when it could have been built with government funds. The CAG report also suggested that the amount collected from motorists be forfeited.

Incidentally, the toll barriers were put up by the private operator within days of the present Akali Dal government coming to power in the state in March 2007. The barriers have been put up at four places along the highway.

Four-wheelers are being charged up to Rs.37 on each of the barriers for a single trip. Driving on this highway can cost up to Rs.130 per trip. Loaded trucks and other heavy vehicles are charged much more at each of the barriers.

A public interest litigation (PIL) was also filed before the Punjab and Haryana High Court here in November, challenging the arbitrary charging of money along the highway. The petition claims the toll being charged is violative of the provisions of the National Highways (Rate of Fee) Rules, 1997.

The high court has sought a reply from the state government in this regard.

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