It costs about Rs 300 by way of toll fee to drive from Delhi to Chandigarh on National Highway Number 44. But not since the last eight months. It is a free pass for commuters with the toll plazas here converting into big farmer protest sites against the central farm laws.
The revenue losses are mounting for the Centre and a senior government official, speaking to News18, put the same at nearly Rs 2,000 crore so far with nearly 50 toll plazas in Punjab and Haryana shut for six to eight months now. The loss is mounting at over Rs five crore daily. This is perhaps the longest closure of so many toll plazas in one go, the central official said.
“We are not hurting the people; they have a free pass and are thankful to us for saving us the cost of paying the toll when fuel prices have hit over Rs 100. No one from the public is complaining at all. We are hurting the government which hasn’t accepted our demands since eight months,” Satnam Singh, a farmer camping at the Panipat Toll Plaza on the NH-44 told News18.
In Parliament in March, Roads and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari said the loss in revenue due to closure of toll plazas was to the tune of Rs 487 crore in Punjab and Rs 326 crore in Haryana till March 16. On July 2, NHAI said toll operators can claim relief due to closure of toll plazas as the farmer protests will be considered as “indirect political force majeure event” that prevented them from collecting toll fee. This could mean their concession agreements for collecting toll being extended for the period the plazas were closed.
Centre’s pleas to the Punjab and Haryana governments to restore fee collection at toll plazas has failed so far, with states saying such a move is fraught with the risk of law and order trouble while dislodging farmers. “It seems a complete surrender by both these states to this unprecedented unlawful act of farmers,” another senior official in the Centre rued.
Farmers with Supplies at Toll Plazas
So instead of personnel seeking toll charge or managing the Fastag system rolled out across the country, there are farmers camping at toll plazas across Haryana and Punjab. A couple of lanes have been left empty for vehicles to pass. “Have tea with us…see we have saved lakhs of rupees of the public! There is a free langar also on if you want some food. You can listen to our struggle,” Gurnam Singh and Jupinder Singh told News18 at Chandigarh toll plaza.
Farmers have put up tents, chairs, fans, coolers and set up cooking equipment to spend their days and nights here. “We closed this toll plaza on November 26. Since, it is closed,” a group of farmers sitting right in the middle of a car lane said. Some SUVs with Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) flags are parked nearby, which farmers say are people from their villages visiting them. Posters of prominent farmer leaders of the movement, like Rakesh Tikait, dot the site as well.
There are also reports of concrete structures now being built at some toll plazas in Punjab by farmers to save themselves from the heat. Some farmers sitting at the Panipat toll plaza said they were now preparing to go to Singhu border as they had learnt of the plan of farmers there to go sit on protest outside the Parliament when Monsoon session begins on July 19.
The Centre and the concessionaires continue to bleed money though with no solution in sight. “The states don’t lose much as these tolls are on the national highways. They are not bothered,” an official rued.