Business Today

India’s costliest road

The tolling of the peripheral road built as part of the Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Corridor has run into trouble over issues of pricing and quality. What does this mean for funding of infrastructure projects?

K.R. Balasubramanyam        Print Edition: January 25, 2009

December 23, 2008 Toll Gates, Electronic City, Bangalore

Techies in Bangalore dread the sight of anything pink in these times of dwindling job opportunities. So, it wasn’t a comforting experience when the managers of a private road in Bangalore dangled pinkcoloured receipts, on December 18, demanding toll for the road they always used free of charge. While techies took it in their stride and paid up, many others refused to comply—like those on whose land the four-lane roads have come up, and to whom the promised compensation is still a flash in the pan.

A policeman guards the NICE-developed toll road in Bangalore following protests against exorbitant toll
The toll collection activity at six entry and exit points on the 41-km peripheral road, forming an arc on the southern fringes of the City, ignited instant opposition. Many protesters alleged that the particular stretch between Bannerghatta Road and Electronic City—the suburb that boasts many famed IT addresses, including Infosys—is not ready yet, and they are accessing it through a mud road. There were others who found the toll to be steep.

Different sections gave vent to their ire in different ways. While some blocked traffic on the road, others destroyed toll booths at a few places. Following this, Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises (NICE), the project developer, suspended toll collection, particularly at the Electronic City booth, which bore the maximum brunt of protestersire, for a few days.

The toll gate at Electronic City, which teemed with vehicles, was stunningly silent when the BT team (photographer Deepak Pawar and I) visited it on December 23. Damaged toll booths were testimony to the violence the toll provoked.

The peripheral road, for which toll is being collected now, is part of the larger Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Corridor (BMIC) project, which, on completion, will connect Bangalore with Mysore by a 111-km expressway.

The BMIC project has political parties vertically split. The JD(S), led by H.D. Deve Gowda, has been breathing fire on the grounds that more land was being palmed off to the developer than required, and it was not an “infrastructure”, but a “real estate” project. But the project itself faces little threat as the Supreme Court has cleared it. Neither of the two main political parties—the ruling BJP or the Opposition Congress—is openly endorsing the toll structure announced for fear of voter resentment. Within days of the trouble breaking out and coming under heavy criticism by the JD(S) for inaction, Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa called for reduction in the toll charges. NICE Managing Director Ashok Kheny, who had initially hit back at the critics, saying he would keep the road for his personal use if no one was willing to pay, softened his stance. The charges have been slashed by about 20 per cent (See Road to Money), but demand for free passes, including for members of local community, has been rejected.

Yet, the issue appears far from settled, and has already stoked old animosity between Yeddyurappa, and former CM H.D. Kumaraswamy of JD(S). The high-voltage exchange of words between the two over the BMIC project is now all set to play out in courts with the CM determined to ensnare Kumaraswamy in a defamation suit.

Pradeep Puri MD of Noida Toll Bridge Company
Pradeep Puri
Kumaraswamy, who is also the JD(S) state president, is critical of the way the project developers went about the collection exercise. He says: “The developer cannot fix the toll on his own without consulting the government. Also, the agreement between the company and the government is very clear that the roads must have concrete layer. The NICE has deviated from many conditions laid down in the agreement without getting government permission.’’

Kheny agrees that his company has to build concrete roads, and will eventually comply with that condition. According to him, NICE has built underpasses every 500 metres and it will take some time for the earth around these structures to settle. The government, he claims, has agreed to the idea that they first build bitumen road, and concrete it after the ground is settled. He alleges that JD(S) is behind the recent protests, and denies it was a spontaneous reaction of people.

Claims of warring factions apart, the controversy over the project has cost Bangaloreans as well as the locals dear. Capt S. Raja Rao, a member of Brihat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike’s (BBMP) Technical Committee on Bangalore roads, says: “The toll on NICE roads is highest in the country, compared to the tolls charged by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) roads and also with Mumbai-Pune Expressway toll.”

There are a number of roads across India, including the Golden Quadrilateral, which levy a fee on users and are functioning without much problem. “People will not resent paying a toll if they find benefit in it. They will not complain, too, as long as they can see their savings from using the road being higher than the toll that they pay,’’ says Pradeep Puri, MD, Noida Toll Bridge Company, a listed firm borne out of a PPP initiative and promoted by Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services (IL&FS).

“In India, we have huge infrastructure deficit, and there are various methods to plug it, including public-private partnership option,’’ he says, adding that the East Coast road in Tamil Nadu, which his company implemented in partnership with the government, is working well with people paying the toll without complaints.

“That is because they can see visible improvement in the quality of the road. Also, we have issued free passes to local commuters,’’ he says. The Noida toll bridge has been in use for the last eight years, and an estimated 1.15 lakh people use it everyday.

If the current protests are an indication, Bangalore’s new road infrastructure is unlikely to offer smooth ride to users for some more time to come. That’s yet another good idea gone awry, thanks to poor implementation.

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