Bengal turns ignition on for highway toll
A corporation has taken the first tangible step in Bengal to levy a toll on state highways, signalling that the Mamata Banerjee government is willing to explore the option of user charges to draw private investment into the road segment.
“The policy has been approved by the board of directors of the WBHDC (West Bengal Highway Development Corporation) and will be sent to the cabinet for final clearance. It is clear that the policy has the approval of the chief minister,” said a senior government official who is also a director.
The WBHDC board includes Subrata Bakshi, a Trinamul MP and Mamata’s trusted lieutenant. Senior officers like power secretary S. Kishore, industries secretary Krishna Gupta, PWD secretary Indevar Pandey, finance secretary H.K. Dwivedi, land secretary Manoj Pant and the personnel and administrative reforms secretary, Manoj Agarwal, are also on the board.
“If they have cleared the toll policy, it appears that it is a matter of time before the cabinet clears it,” said another official.
Till now, only national highways and some state-run bridges have levied user charges in Bengal. The Mamata government has so far been averse to imposing user charges on state highways.
According to the policy cleared today for the consideration of the cabinet, the state government will not levy user charges on buses and minibuses, keeping in mind the common people. The policy has been framed to keep the user charges as affordable as possible, said sources. They pointed out that the proposed rates were lower than those for the national highways.
Till now, the state government has received a negative response from private investors whenever it has sought investments to develop state highways in the public-private partnership module.
“The private investors wanted us to go for the annuity model under which the private player will develop the roads and the state government will pay the firm back at an annual interest of around 18 per cent. The companies refused to take the responsibility of collecting toll in the absence of a policy and for fear of local problems,” said an official. But the government did not pursue the model as it would have added to the burden of the exchequer.
The proposed toll policy, officials said, is expected to address the problem to some extent as it will allow the investors to collect toll legally.
Officials said they would look into the West Bengal Highways Act, 1964, to find out whether it had any provision barring the collection of toll from state highways.
“If required, we will amend the act to ensure that toll can be levied on state highways,” an official added.
However, framing a toll policy alone will not solve all the problems. “The chief minister has to rethink her hands-off land policy…. If the state does not arrange for the land required for widening roads, no investor will show interest,” said another official.
A Rites survey has revealed that the width of the majority of state highways is 5 metres and it will require a large quantum of land to widen them to at least 10 metres (two lanes with a paved shoulder) so that toll can be levied.
The state government has recently taken initiatives to implement the central land acquisition act in Bengal. But it is still not clear whether the state government will use the act to arrange for land for PPP projects.
Bengal has a total of 4,000km of state highways, of which around 2,500km need urgent renovation and restoration. Such a huge task is not possible without private investments, said sources.
In the past, agencies involved in collecting toll on NH2 and NH6 were forced to shut the toll plazas because of resistance from ruling party leaders demanding jobs for youths.