At about 11.30 pm Friday, half an hour before the anti-air pollution Environment Compensation Charge (ECC) was to be finally levied, eight members of the Shahdara toll positioned themselves 500 metres before the booths. From here, they warned every truck that passed that if they were not headed for Delhi and were just passing through, the toll tax would be greater.
But all these precautions had little effect. Less than an hour later, arguments at the toll plaza caused a two-km long traffic snarl. Jagdeesh, the in-charge of the night shift, tried to reason with angry drivers.
“Where is the notice about the extra tax? There is nothing here on paper, no notice. How do I know you are not fleecing me? Let me go back, I will take another route,” said Raksha Ram, who was headed to Hyderabad via Delhi. With public notices carrying details of the tax yet to be put up at tolls, Jagdeesh thrust a copy of Dainik Jagaran at Ram. “See, this says the Supreme Court ordered this. We will give you a receipt; why would we fleece you. This is a very strict rule,” he said.
Ignoring the honking of other trucks, Ram read through the paper. “You think I am illiterate? I can read… This says the tax is from November 1. But I came here on Tuesday and you did not take any tax from me… Why are you trying to fool us,” he said.
With the toll collecting concessionaire announcing that they would start collecting the cess barely two hours earlier, there were no written records the toll staff could show him. A constable had to be called in to make Ram see sense. Meanwhile, other drivers also did not pay and said they wanted to see how this played out.
The SC-appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority, in its meeting on Wednesday, had directed the Delhi government to install boards notifying the new cess in 125 toll booths across Delhi. Toll staff said these boards would have saved a lot of time on Friday nights. Raksha Ram was only the beginning of the toll staff’s troubles. Another driver insisted on taking a U-turn. He started to turn his truck around, refusing to consider the traffic logjam he would cause, with the snarl already stretching miles before the border.
Another driver, Bhairav Singh, said that when he came here on Wednesday night, he was asked to go back but was not told to pay any extra money that day.
“So if you had to take a U-turn that day, why did you come here again,” the constable questioned him. Singh said, “I thought this would not continue, it is not practical to travel 200 km extra…”
The constable told the staff to let him go if he does not want to pay. “But if we let him go, others will insist… look at the jam, he has come here, now he has to pay,” said the staff member who replaced Jagdeesh at the counter.
As the arguments continued, reports began trickling in that the snarl was now five kms long. Many got out of their vehicles and walked to the toll to investigate what had led to the logjam.
Traffic personnel were called in at about 1 am. “You cannot take so long with each truck, you have to deal with them faster. Look at the traffic,” he told Jagdeesh. The jam would continue till 6 am on Saturday.
Around the same time, 15 km away, at the Ghazipur toll plaza, Bikram Singh begged to be allowed to go. “I do not own this vehicle, I am just the driver. My employer only gives me daily money according to the toll tax. How do I give you the extra money?” he said.
All the counters saw long queues of vehicles as more such arguments broke out. Manual receipts were issued for the ECC as officials said their software system was yet to incorporate the tax. This made the process slower. A driver who claimed to have food grains, which is exempted from the cess, was found to be lying when the booth incharge checked his cargo.
“There were hardly 4-5 sacks of potatoes, rest was construction material. We do not have the resources to conduct such checks on every truck, as is expected of us,” said a toll staff member.
At the Sirhaul Toll Plaza on National Highway 8, vehicles coming from Jaipur and Gurgaon were stopped. Protests by drivers led to a huge snarl on the highway. Manveer Singh, DCP, Gurgaon Traffic Police, said an advisory had to be issued on Saturday morning, stating that traffic would remain slow during the day from Gurgaon towards Delhi in view of the cess collection.
“We had to send our personnel in the night to assist toll staff. But since drivers were not aware (of the cess), many refused and that created confusion,” said Singh.
Delhi traffic police authorities said local police will be deployed at the toll points from Saturday to support toll staff. “We wrote to all local police bodies for personnel to be deployed today, to handle law and order problems, after several arguments broke out. Today, we have arranged for local police to be deployed. We also wrote to police authorities of neighbouring states,” said Delhi Special Commissioner of Police (Traffic) Muktesh Chander. He added that these traffic snarls were restricted outside the capital’s limits.
With inputs from ENS Delhi, Gurgaon