Around 8.30 am on Friday, Soni Kumari, who hails from Benaras, was manning a booth at Gurgaon’s Kherki Daula toll plaza when a car rolled into her lane. Asked to pay toll, the driver handed her a Haryana Police identity card, which he claimed belonged to him, and demanded that she let him pass for free.
Since police personnel are not exempt from paying toll, Kumari insisted the driver pay Rs 65 based on his vehicle’s size and make.
What followed next would shock many — but not Kumari. As she refused to open the boom barrier, the driver and two other passengers got out of the car and began abusing her. One of the men put his hand through the booth’s window, trying to grab the 22-year-old, but she moved back and evaded his grasp.
Kumari’s colleagues rushed to her aid and the men, still abusing and threatening, reluctantly paid the toll and drove off.
Kumari went on with her day. “Such incidents are very common here. People come and fight with us or abuse us almost every day. Even violence is not uncommon anymore. In the last 7-10 days, there have been so many cases of commuters beating up employees, hitting them with their vehicles — just so they don’t have to pay the toll,” says Kumari.
Records obtained from Gurgaon Police are testimony to Kumari’s claims — between June 21 and June 28, four FIRs were registered over violence at the plaza.
On Friday, Kirpal Singh, PRO of toll operator Skylark, was assaulted with a brick by the owner of a WagonR when he refused to let his vehicle pass because the registration certificate (RC) the driver had produced was fake. Bleeding, he was rushed to the hospital.
Residents of 31 villages in the area are exempt from paying toll, and have to produce RCs to claim the benefit. “Tags are issued to vehicle owners based on their RCs; they have to produce these to get exemption. But people often show RCs that have been tampered with, by changing the address of the vehicle’s owner to one of the villages exempt from paying tax. When toll collectors challenge them, it ends in arguments, and often violence,” says Rajendra Bhati, Project Head at Skylark.
According to officials, 18,623 such tags have been issued since 2015, of which 15,463 are currently active. Apart from Manesar, exempted villages include Badshahpur, Bar Gujjar, Kasan, Kherki Daula, Narsingpur and Shikohpur. “A bulk of people who fight with toll workers do so when they are refused passage without paying tax,” says PRO Singh.
One such commuter had crossed paths with Santoshi Rajput, a 20-year-old from Jhansi, on June 21. The confrontation ended with Rajput getting a bloody nose.
CCTV footage of the incident shows the man pushing the boom barrier with his hand to allow his vehicle to pass through. On his way back to the car, he puts his hand through the booth window to slap Rajput, even as a colleague rushes to defend her. In the seconds that follow, he puts his hand through the window a second time and punches her in the face.
Although windows of toll booths, made of glass, can be closed when such confrontations arise, toll collectors as well as officials from Skylark admit that it is rare for collectors being targeted to have the presence of mind to do so.
“My nose started bleeding when he punched me. I was taken to the hospital and admitted for a day. I am still on medication for the pain,” says Rajput, a farmer’s daughter.
Her parents and two school-going brothers, who live in Jhansi, found out about the incident only on Thursday, when one of her brothers came across a news report.
“They had heard about the incident, but I lied and told them it happened to someone else because I did not want them to worry. But they found out anyway. They have been asking me to leave this job and take up some other work, but I am determined to continue — for now. My parents have taught me to not be afraid of anyone,” says Rajput.
In the long term, however, Rajput hopes she can secure a government job. She is pursuing a BA course through correspondence, and spends two hours each night and each morning preparing for exams. “I want to be financially independent and support my family. But this isn’t the work I want to do. A government job would be much safer,” she says.
Kumari and Rajput are among 40 women toll collectors who handle 27 lanes of the plaza, through which “70,000 to 80,000 vehicles” pass each day. There are a total of 300 employees, including toll collectors, line attendants and traffic marshals, who work at the plaza in three shifts. The women, however, work only in ‘Shift B’ — from 8 am to 4 pm. Each employee gets one day off a week, and a starting salary of “around Rs 10,000 a month”.
“The money we collect is government money. Our organisation is a private company that has been hired by government banks to do toll collection on their behalf,” says Bhati.
Apart from collectors seated inside booths to collect toll, those in lanes outside, managing traffic or collecting tax on foot, speak of similar brushes with violence.
On June 28, 2016, a traffic marshal, who hailed from Bharatpur and had been working at the plaza for three months, was run over by a speeding truck. The case FIR states the incident took place around 11.40 pm, on the side of the carriageway meant for vehicles travelling from Manesar towards Gurgaon.
“A truck driver came speeding, driving carelessly. He first rammed into the barricade, after which he lost control and ran over Harpal,” says his cousin, who also worked as a traffic marshal at the plaza and was on duty at the time. Harpal died en route to hospital.
The other fatality in the last decade was in 2011, when a toll collector was shot dead by a commuter.
Incidents of employees being dragged on car bonnets or being hit by vehicles have, in the meantime, become alarmingly common.
In April, line attendant Arun Kumar, who hails from Muzaffarnagar, had a nightmarish experience when he was dragged on the bonnet of an Innova for several kilometres by two men who didn’t want to pay tax.
“They pressed the accelerator and the vehicle sped towards me. To avoid being run over, I jumped on the bonnet and held on with both hands. But this didn’t deter them. They kept driving for 3-4 km, after which they stopped in an isolated area and beat me up,” says Kumar. “They told me to remember the car number and not stop them the next time they come to the toll plaza.”
Son of a farmer, Kumar started working at the plaza four months ago. Before this, he worked at a toll plaza in Meerut for a year.
“That was my first job. They trained me for 15 days on how to operate equipment. That plaza was much better, people were not so aggressive. It’s very difficult here,” says Kumar.
His quest for justice, he says, is keeping him at the current job. “I am fighting the case. There is no point moving anywhere else if I have to travel back and forth for that. But I do want to switch to some other work. There is no point living in such danger on a daily basis. My family is also worried,” he says.
While many commuters manipulate RCs, some even produce false ID cards claiming to be government employees or police personnel. “There may have been a time when such methods worked. Government employees and police are not exempt from paying tax, but people keep hoping toll collectors will become scared and let them pass. They don’t realise our employees are no longer illiterate. Toll collection is becoming more corporate and professional — our workers don’t fall for such things and follow protocol,” says Bhati.
“It is because of the courage of collectors, because we quickly take up each matter with police and administration that such incidents have reduced in the last three years,” he says.
Police records, however, show that this year is an exception, with six cases already having been registered in the first six months, including four in June. In contrast, three FIRs had been registered over violence at the plaza in 2018; and five each in 2016 and 2017. In 2015, 17 cases had been registered.
There are three types of security deployed around the plaza — traffic police personnel associated with Gurgaon Police, highway police deployed to manage traffic, and four personnel deployed at a police post to manage VIP movement.
For the plaza itself, there is no dedicated security. “The closest station, Kherki Daula, is around 800 metres away, and personnel respond promptly when there is an incident. But nobody is deployed here to help immediately when violence occurs,” says PRO Singh.
DCP (Manesar) Rajesh Kumar, however, refuted these claims, stating that personnel at the police post in the area are also meant to ensure safety and security at the plaza: “We have personnel linked to the Kherki Daula police station who are deployed near the plaza, in addition to the Traffic Police personnel who manage vehicle movement there.”
“The bulk of confrontations happen between toll collectors and local residents, not outsiders. In order to arrive at a long-term solution to this problem, we are planning to hold a meeting with toll officials and sarpanchs of villages exempt from paying tax to talk through the matter,” he said.
Most altercations, employees say, occur during the day, and the aggressors are usually travelling in cars. “Drivers of trucks and buses do not usually get into arguments… But local residents fight with us. Many don’t even get exemption tags made simply because of ego, and when we try to stop them from passing, they become aggressive,” says Shyam Singh, who has been working at the plaza for over two years — and has been at the receiving end of three incidents of violence in the last nine months.
While one commuter shot at him, but missed because he ducked to avoid the bullet, another ran over his leg, leaving it fractured. In the third incident, in December 2018, he was punched in the face by a commuter and left with a broken nose. “My family has no idea about the level of aggression here. They only know about the time I fractured my leg. If they discovered that someone opened fire at me or broke my nose, they would never allow me to work here,” he says.
According to Skylark officials, the only long-term solution to the violence is better enforcement by the Regional Transport Office and traffic police. “If they carry out campaigns and seize false documents that commuters carry, such incidents will reduce, and the tax the government is losing out on will also be retained. We had hoped that when women were deployed, one positive effect would be a reduction in violence. But those with a violent frame of mind don’t seem to see whether it’s a man or a woman in front of them,” says Bhati.
“I have initiated women into this job at several toll plazas in the last 20 years, including in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab…. We never had to lodge a complaint on behalf of a woman collector in these places. It is only here that people don’t even hesitate to slap or punch a woman collector,” he adds.