During his extensive travels, Sanjay Shirodkar, 45, a Pune-based sales professional, always felt strongly about the terrible condition of roads in the state, more so where motorists paid heavy toll charges.
In 2007, he started collecting information through various means like RTI about roads and toll contracts. It was then that Raj Thackeray, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief, spotted Shirodkar on a TV debate on toll and picked him to drive the party's agitation on the matter. Shirodkar, who says he has visited most of the 176 toll nakas in the state, spoke to Dhaval Kulkarni about the problems and mismanagement he found at these posts. Following are edited excerpts.
Q: The state government says that the toll matter was overdone as only 2% of the 2.43 lakh km road network is tolled.
They do not reveal which roads are covered under the 2%. This figure covers the road network across the entire state, including village and district roads. My claim is that around 20% of the 4,800 km stretch of national highways (NH) passing through Maharashtra are tolled. The government must reveal figures regarding tolled stretches on national and state highways (SH). These people are misguiding citizens.
Q: What are the problems with facilities on the tolled roads?
People must get service roads, rest areas, bus and truck bays. Emergency services like ambulances and cranes should be available. There must be adequate petrol pumps, communication facilities, restaurants, drinking water, patrolling and proper drainage. Not one tolled road in the state has all this.
Q: If toll is to be scrapped, what are the alternatives?
Maharashtra collected around Rs22,000 crore as vehicle tax in 10 years. It was necessary to use around 75% of this for roads. If this was done there would have been no necessity for tolled roads. In the 10 years, about Rs3,000-Rs3,500 crore has been collected by way of toll. The PWD must reveal figures regarding its budget, planned and non-planned outlays over the 10 years. If these funds were used again there would have been no need for tolled roads. Above all, if the government is collecting money (toll) it should at least provide good roads. The people are incensed as the roads are not good and lack facilities. This leads to accidents that claim lives. In Mumbai, people are charged toll at five entry points, then why are they charged on exit too?
Q: The government says toll is an accepted practice the world over.
The government must first give an account of the 13 types of taxes collected in the last decade. People must get services and facilities in lieu for the toll they pay. If motorists do not want to pay toll, an alternative road must be provided for them. Today, toll is charged on both the expressway and the old highway!
Q: How can systems be made more accountable?
Traffic data submitted by the contractors is blindly accepted by officials regardless of the fact that they must carry out inspections and conduct traffic sampling. We will keep on complaining to the chief minister, the National Highways Authority and the ministry. There is only one way to get accountability, that is people must be strong. They must ask the contractors why toll is being charged and say they will pay only if they get facilities. If people are incensed, it could lead to a situation as in Kolhapur, where people have united on their own against toll charges without the involvement of political parties.
Q: What has been the experience in other states?
I have traveled in Gujarat, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. It was a pleasure driving there. The toll levied there is according to rules and formulas. The distance between two toll nakas is 80-90 km. I will not say that there is a 100% compliance (with rules) but the roads are good. There is no toll on state highways in these states. In Maharashtra, one has to pay toll to enter even a small town like Baramati.