The news of a GPS-based toll system to replace FASTag for seamless payment has been in the air for some time. Under this system, vehicles will need to be fitted with a device that will be registered when the vehicle enters a tolled road, and toll will be charged, based on the distance travelled, at the highway exit point. This would obviate the need for toll booths which are a bump in smooth and uninterrupted movement on highways and expressways. Under the system, users will have to get themselves and their vehicles registered along with bank accounts that will be used to transfer toll payments. It is expected that the system may lead to a drop in toll charges, as vehicles will be charged on the actual distance travelled and not fixed charges, as is done at toll plazas currently.
Nitin Gadkari, the Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, is however ambivalent about whether the replacement for FASTag will be GPS-based or camera-based tolling. The latter would call for new number plates that can be read by overhead cameras at the end of the tolled road. The plates are supposed to be linked to your bank account, from which the toll would be deducted in a flash. In the US, all the three systems of toll collections exist on various turnpikes.
Why junk FASTag so soon in the day? According to official data, FASTag penetration has surged from nearly 16% in 2017-18 to 96.3% in 2021-22. Total toll collection during 2017-18 was Rs 21,948 crore, including Rs 3,532 crore collected through FASTag. However, in 2021-22, toll collection through FASTags increased sharply to Rs 33,274 crore out of a total toll collection of Rs 34,535 crore. The saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to apply here — with the addition that if it isn’t broken, it should not be junked or replaced merely because there is an alternative, unless the latter is superior or the former has become obsolete.
FASTag has been working reasonably well, though there are reports of serpentine queues at certain points resulting in slowing down of traffic flow (and waste of fuel with the engine running). If the person manning the booth is slow, the remedy lies in pulling him up. If the fault is with the scanners, the remedy lies in replacing them. Instead, what the government is proposing to do is to throw the baby out with the bath water. Every system has hiccups — that doesn’t mean condemning it.
While it is true that complete and 100% automation renders manpower redundant, toll plazas need a lot of clerks and attendants. Camera-based and GPS-based toll collection in comparison will need far less manpower and to this extent they are admittedly more cost-effective. But the moot question is why did the government not embrace, say, the camera model, instead of plunging headlong into the FASTag model especially when all the three models were in vogue at the time when it decided on FASTag?
The camera and GPS models are smooth in the sense that traffic doesn’t come to a halt at toll plazas as in the FASTag system. But they call for prompt action when a vehicle vrooms past without paying toll online, ie in the virtual world. In the US, traffic police lie in wait at exits and swing into action when a vehicle — deliberately or due to a technical snag — goes through without payment of toll, or when any traffic violation is reported by the satellite, as in the Washington DC area. Do we have enough such enforcing officers and the requisite infrastructure — especially internet connectivity — to ensure that no one gets away with impunity and the system is not taken for a ride? Are our bank servers always in readiness? Bank servers slowing down or crashing is fairly routine in India. An alternative to gunning after the vehicle that has gotten past without payment is to send the bill by post with a copy to the RTO concerned who may be empowered to impound the vehicle in the face of persistent refusal to pay up. Be that as it may.
A parallel run is what is ordered by the doctor. Let FASTag continue — not with warts and all, but with constant finetuning. After all, the system was put in place with the joint efforts of banks, vehicle owners and the Government. To junk it with a stroke of an executive order would be cataclysmic (though not on the scale of the demonetisation of 500- and 1000-rupee notes on the night of Nov 8, 2016). Remember that toll plazas, though they may be roadblocks, ensure compliance thanks to the simple technology of scanning of the tag affixed on the windshield. Though there have been sporadic instances of rowdy vehicle owners beating up the booth clerks and bolting away, the answer may lie in automation of the booth. In US parking lots, there is no human intervention. The barrier lifts up to allow exit only on payment of the parking charges through credit card. A machine can remain resolutely defiant and unyielding, impervious to temper and tantrums.
One may scale up from 4G to 5G for better data quality but can remain steadfast with 4G. The Government may embrace camera-based or GPS-based toll collection on new roads. Let it not disturb the existing FASTag infrastructure. Every change is not progress.
S Murlidharan is a freelance columnist for various publications and writes on economics, business, legal, and taxation issues
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