Saturday, January 14, 2012

Kerala and tolls..

Kerala - the most literate state in India - has a particular dislike for tolls. By 'toll', I mean the user fee collected from road users for using a bridge or a road. The road infrastructure in Kerala is, perhaps, the worst among Indian states (atleast in South India). Kerala's roads are in poor condition for 360 days of a year - the roads get repaired a few days before the monsoon sets in, and the roads go back to square one within two days of rains.

Ministers in-charge of Public works and Roads, irrespective of their political affiliation, always blame the poor condition of roads due to the special conditions in Kerala - as if it rains only in Kerala! We still have British era roads in pristine condition, while roads laid months ago are in tatters. Kerala's roads are the best place for an automobile manufacturer to test their vehicles' suspension setup - if it can handle our roads, it can even ride in the deserts!

Coming back to the topic - "Kerala and tolls": Recently (I mean a few years back), the NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) set out with its target of building "standard" roads - most National highways are being converted to 4-lane roads on private partnership. In effect, these roads are being turned to "paid" roads, where one has to pay a user-fee to use the facility. These roads have helped vehicle owners save huge amounts of fuel, and thereby helping the country save a lot on foreign exchange.

Roads in Kerala are typically single lane roads - with just enough carriageway for two vehicles to cross each other without hitting each other. A recent World Bank assisted project (Kerala State Transport Project, KSTP) helped the state to widen its major roads to two-lane carriageways. The NHAI proposal envisages 60-metre wide roads, with service roads on either sides and wide medians that would prevent vehicles from jumping across direction in case of an accident. Kerala played its "special condition" card here as well, and successfully stopped expansion of roads in Kerala. After a lot of debate on the issue, the NHAI finally ceded to the state's demand, and agreed to build highways with 45-metres width (instead of the 60-metre national standard). Although Kerala has very high population density, which makes land acquisitions very difficult, one point to be considered here is the very high vehicular population on Kerala's roads.

Fine - we are getting National Highways that are 75% as wide as NHs in other states. However, like in every other state, NHAI builds them on Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) basis with Private partnership. This means the roads would charge a user-fee proportionate to the distance traveled by the road user. There are two sections in Kerala that meet the NH standards - Mannuthy-Edappally and Edappally-Aroor (both on the erstwhile NH47. The former section is on the current NH544, and the later on the current NH66).

In Kerala, tolls are usually charged on bridges, not for roads. The average malayalee is used to pay a maximum of Rs. 5 (one-way, Rs. 7.50 for both ways) as toll for major bridges. For smaller bridges, its Rs. 2 (one way, Rs. 3 for both ways). Smaller bridges include small culverts, for which the PWD would call a tender and appoint a contractor to collect toll! I wonder if the contractor would make any money at all after considering the salary for the employees collecting toll! Half of the vehicles would zip through without stopping or even slowing down. Now, the new Tollways in Kerala are demanding upto Rs. 55 one way! The average malayalee who is used to paying Rs. 5 gets worried when thinking of having to pay Rs. 55 one way!!!

The result: Hartal! Yes. Malayalees celebrated another harthal for the "privatisation" of roads! They stoned the toll gates, destroyed public property and staged road-blockades. Political parties poured enough fuel into the fire that matters spiraled out of control. The first road to be tolled in Kerala was the Edappally-Aroor section, which charges Rs. 15 one way (Rs. 20 both ways). However, a good portion of this section (Edappally to Kundannoor Jn) sees heavy traffic, and there are three traffic signals in this section. The NHAI has not yet finalised the designs of flyovers at these junctions.

The second road in Kerala to be tolled is the Mannuthy-Edappally section of NH47 (NH544). This section, about 75-or-so kms, saves almost 30-45 minutes of running time for a car driver, in addition to atleast a couple of litres of fuel. Overtakes are now a bliss, and one strains the engine much less now. This road has also led to an increase in the revenues of Kerala Police - they've invested heavily on purchasing speed radars, and they have speed checks on the road almost daily! Since one sees a good road in Kerala very very rarely, drivers tend to put a heavy right foot on the accelerator - forgetting the 70kmph speed limit for LMVs in the state. This road is now making money for every one except the contractor who built it!

The toll-plaza erected on the Mannuthy-Edappally section. The user fee for cars at this toll plaza is Rs. 55
A talk show conducted by a major television channel concluded that toll collection on the highway amounts to breach of one's basic rights. The participants in the show were asking for free highways across the state. One point every participant in the show forgot was the amount of fuel vehicles save while using such highways - overtakes are no more stressful, and one tends to reduce the number of gear shifts. Drives are more stressfree, and one tends to maintain constant pace through out. The government cannot afford to spend crores on these wide highways - and they surely need to be funded on public-private partnerships (PPPs). What is wrong in paying a user fee for the road (its in the range of about 75 paise a kilometre) that is well kept, wide and well-paved? One pays tolls for bridges that are not maintained properly, but are not ready to pay money for a good road.

A bridge constructed inside the city in Kochi charges toll from users - why one earth is a bridge inside the city charging tolls? The effect - hardly anyone uses the bridge out of choice, and everyone ends up choking the old roads. So, what benefit did the bridge do to the city? There is no one to protest against such bad decisions - but public are out en masse to protest against toll collection for a road that saves time and fuel! Yes - Rs. 55 does sound huge - the contractor could have made two plazas and collected money in bits instead of collecting Rs. 55 at one go. But, should we protest against charging user fee on highways that save a lot of time and fuel?

A drive from my home in Kodungallur to Bangalore would make me poorer by about Rs. 350~450 if I go via Coimbatore-Salem-Hosur, due to the user fee charged. However, I'd spend only Rs. 10 in userfee if I took the Kozhikode-S.Bathery-Mysore route - but I'd have to spend upto 4 hours extra on the road - because, the road is predominantly two-laned and ill-maintained. I'd rather spend Rs. 350/450 and reach Bangalore in 8~9 hours, saving a lot of fuel. I repeat, should we protest against charging user fee on highways that save a lot of time and fuel?

End-Note: The user-fee collection on the Mannuthy-Edappally stretch was abandoned in December owing to mounting public protest. The user-fee collection would resume this month - local parties and "anti-toll" groups have already announced protest measures against toll collection. I wish the government brushes aside the protests and goes ahead with toll collection - better roads are desperately needed in Kerala.