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Despite the hue and cry about demonetisation, it is now becoming obvious that two sectors are overjoyed. They see demonetisation having boosted their fortunes. One is the road toll sector. The other, obviously, is the financial intermediation sector. These are two sectors that are thrilled about demonetisation.
Just last year, the total toll collected through the e-payment route was under 1 percent. But today it has soared to 35 percent. That is truly an incredible jump. And this is despite the fact that the number of toll stations in the country has been growing (see table), with the maximum number being located in Rajasthan. States like Uttaranchal, Delhi and Meghalaya have the smallest numbers.
That is the good news on the road toll front. But there is a seamier side as well.
First, the RFID facility could have been in place at least three months earlier. Second, the government appears unwilling to make RFID compulsory for all.
True, this is not evident from the statements made by the government. Undoubtedly, its intentions were always laudable. Consider this. In order “to remove traffic bottle neck at toll plazas and ensure seamless movement of vehicles and hassle-free collection of toll, the Government has implemented a nationwide Electronic Toll Collection based on passive Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) conforming to EPC Gen-2, ISO 18000-6C standards. It provides for electronic collection of toll through FASTags.”
Electronic Fee Collection (EFC) was rolled out across the country on 25th April, 2016. Initially, the introduction of RFID got delayed. Unknown to many, even by November 2016, the technology had not been given the go-ahead because the government was still grappling with the manner in which the exemption list should be incorporated into the billing software.
The list of exemptions was so huge (see table), that getting these exemptions included in the software – with suitable modifications for each state – was obviously going to create headaches for the programmers.
Then the inevitable happened. Possibly a push from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), or the pains caused by demonetisation, and the epayment route got cleared. The exemption list remained in place but had to be executed manually. For many common people, demonetisation compelled them to opt for epayment. As a result, arguments about who is exempted and who is not continue to take place at toll stations. And when arguments begin, common drivers of non-exempted vehicles too get held up.
On the technology side, there are few problems. Three banks – IDFC, ICICI and HDFC – have begun accepting billing against RFID tag entries. All that a vehicle owner has to do is to stick his RFID card on his vehicle’s windshield. The toll gate cameras would zoom in, capture the required data and debit the required amount to the vehicle owner’s account, and the vehicle would pass through without stopping. The debit is made through NHAI’s own servers, connected to the toll plazas. The NHAI servers then send the payment request to the banks, and the pre-authorisation enables the money transfer.
Today, most toll plazas accept payments through credit/debit cards and PayTM as well.
It is the technology that has helped toll collections to scale up so dramatically. By May 2016, only 3,133 FASTags had been given out. But the number went up to 178,266 by December 22, 2016. Fees collected from FASTags was just Rs 0.71 crore in May 2016. This rose to Rs 47.02 crore by 22 December, 2016.
Collection of fees through electronic means was just about 5 percent of total toll collections in October-November 2016. This rose to about 11 percent by mid-December. By end-September 2017, they are believed to have crossed the 35 percent mark.
By November 2016, there were 394 toll plazas on various National Highways across the country. Data on how much money is collected by toll is not easily available, but some websites give the figure as over Rs 6,700 crore through toll fee in 2015-16. So much for transparency!
According to the statement that Union Minister Nitin Gadkari made before the Lok Sabha on July 27, 2017, “the total transaction count since January 2017 to June 2017 under e-mode stands at 6.11 crore (61 million) and the revenue collected under e-mode for the same period is Rs 1,665 crore. Depending upon the feasibility at fee plazas, all existing lanes are proposed to be FASTag-enabled by converting the fee lanes to Hybrid EFC lanes with all the payment options including cash, smart card and FASTag.”
But the seamier side of exempted categories remains unresolved.
This is surprising. All the government has to do is to ensure that each exempted person is given an RFID card. The government’s own database links persons to the RFID number, and the debit is made to the respective department. All RFID cards would then get debited to the respective accounts. If a refund has to be made, it can be done centrally – electronically.
Why make toll operators get into disputes about who should be allowed through the toll gates without paying toll fees? In fact, this would be the same as the Aadhaar system. Except that the exempted category does not have to go through an identity check. He has only to keep his RFID card attached to his vehicle’s windshield.
In fact, toll operators have horror stories about officials complaining and even getting into fisticuffs with tollgate operators, when they try travelling through the gates in their private (not official) cars. The RFID card could solve this problem. Let the vehicle owner drive the private car with the required RFID card attached to the windshield. Suddenly, the movement of traffic becomes smooth. All privileged travel is recorded for future study.
However, it appears that despite all the talk about transparency, the government does not want the privileged to be tracked. Is it because privileged exempted passage is being misused by some? Then, isn’t the RFID route the best way to monitor such misuse? After all, if Aadhaar is mandatory for the farmers and the underprivileged, why can’t the FRID be so for the exempted categories? The privileged should certainly not be allowed free travel, without such travel being recorded.
Tracking the number of toll-free rides by the privileged would actually allow the government to tabulate the number of times a person had used or misused the exemption facility.
In fact, every exemption is that much money lost to the toll operator. The toll operator also loses in another way. The time taken to clear a vehicle through physical verification, whether for exemption or not, is a lot longer than through the epayment route. When there is a pileup, the toll operator has to deploy more people to handle the traffic congestion. What is even more vexatious is that this slows down the movement of other people – who are invariably the non-privileged taxpayers of the country.
So, will the government live up to its promise of transparency? Will it make RFID-based payments compulsory at all toll stations – irrespective of whether the driver or vehicle belongs to the exempted category or not. This would make toll operators happier, the government richer, and the rest of the drivers on India’s roads that much more comfortable.
That would truly be made-in-India, not unmake-in-India.