A letter issued by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) has resulted in toll operators in several parts of the country insisting that only those defence personnel who are travelling ‘on duty’ are entitled to toll tax exemption.
There is disquiet amongst serving defence personnel over the issuance of a letter by the MoRTH that is in contravention of the Indian Tolls (Army & Air Force) Act, 1901. The letter has been released in the form of an RTI reply stating that defence personnel who are not ‘on duty’ are not entitled to toll tax exemption. The RTI reply was issued based on notings by a law officer of the Law Ministry stating that Section 3(b) of the Act only permits toll exemption to defence personnel who are “on duty”. The letter is now being cited by toll operators to refuse toll exemption to defence personnel.
An advocate dealing with the case said Section 3(b) of the act only deals with Territorial Army (TA) and National Cadet Corps (NCC) personnel for whom the condition of ‘duty’ is imposed while the said requirement of being ‘on duty’ is not applicable to personnel of the regular forces to whom Section 3 (a) applies. The advocate said the controversy is needless as it was earlier settled in 2003 by the same ministry, in consultation with the law ministry, that there was no requirement of ‘duty’ under the 1901 Act for regular forces. The grant of toll exemption to defence personnel had earlier in 2006 been challenged till the Supreme Court but the apex court had upheld the exemption.
Another curious aspect that has come to light is that when a petition was filed before the Armed Forces Tribunal on the subject, the MoRTH had sought the opinion of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on the subject. A closer look, however, revealed that the opinion had been tendered by ‘Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare’ (DESW) against the issue saying that the matter concerned a ‘welfare measure’ of ‘ex-servicemen’ while in reality the matter related to a statutory privilege of serving personnel of the regular forces and the DESW had no jurisdiction on the issue.The Chandimandir-based Western Command of the Army immediately raised a red flag on the DESW interfering in the matter pointing out the gravity and inappropriateness and also stating that the matter was under the jurisdiction of ‘Department of Defence’ (DoD). The AFT also later disposed the petition stating that it did not have jurisdiction over the matter.
Lt Col S S Sohi (retd), chairman of Ex-servicemen Grievances Cell, said, “This is blatantly illegal harassment of serving personnel on toll plazas all over the country… It is now reaching alarming proportions, the authorities in Delhi should finally wake up from their slumber. This is an anti-soldier move and should be immediately corrected.”
Experts say the entire issue is shrouded in a cloud – the issuance of a letter under the garb of RTI being issued by the MoRTH thereby contravening a legislative Act and its own notifications and secondly, the DESW which is concerned with pensions and resettlement of ex-servicemen commenting on an issue of serving soldiers.