Uttar Pradesh farmers are demanding that the government and NHAI allow free passage of tractor-trolleys and vehicles of people living in a 10-km radius of a tolling point.
NEW DELHI/GHAZIABAD: Highway modernization is facing a new threat, this time from Bharat Kisan Union (BKU), with the farmers' body warning of taking over all highway toll plazas in Uttar Pradesh if the government and NHAI do not allow free passage of tractor-trolleys and vehicles of people living in a 10-km radius of a tolling point.
A day after its top leaders held a long meeting with NHAI officials to resolve several issues, BKU activists on Saturday took over a toll plaza near Garh Mukteshwar on NH-24 for several hours and removed barriers of the toll plaza on NH-58 (Daurala) close to Meerut for the second time. On Sunday, over hundred farmers had laid siege to the Dasna toll plaza. The organization has announced that it will take over a toll plaza near Saharanpur on Monday. The stir may hit the DND Flyway, which connects Delhi and Noida, on Friday.
"For some hours, the NHAI contractor had started tolling on NH-58 on Friday, but we soon took control over the plaza. The protest will spread to other stretches in UP and also in other states," BKU spokesperson Rakesh Tikait said.
The BKU may have ambitiously announced plans to take over toll plazas across UP but the outfit's tactics may be successful only in the western part of the state, where it commands some influence.
On Sunday, agitating farmers reached the Dasna toll plaza around 9.30 am and threw open the toll gates for at least two-and-a-half hours. They again took over the plaza allowing vehicles free passage till late night. "There is no service road, which forces local commuters to pay and cross the toll plaza," Rajveer Singh, BKU's Meerut zone president, said.
BKU has also threatened to re-launch its stir from December 7 on DND Flyway to make the stretch toll free, accusing the district administration and the DND operator of failing to meet their demand. They also want the extra toll that the DND operator had collected between November 9 and 17 to be handed over to the district magistrate so that the amount can be given for charity or to a 'gaushala'. After increasing the toll to Rs 25, it was rolled back to Rs 22 after BKU launched a protest.
There are also reports of the BKU taking over Itaunja and Atariya toll plazas in the next few days and the agitation moving to Sitapur, Hardoi, Unnao and Lucknow districts. BKU seems to be using the standoff to gain greater support before the next general election and there are indications of protesters continuing with their agitation till that time. The organization's top leaders are likely to decide which other toll plazas would be targeted.
Tikait added that the fight was not just for farmers' vehicles, but against the wrong policy of government that allows toll operators to charge "hefty" user fee from locals who take highway for 5-10 km. "We will continue the protest against the present practice as NHAI has told us that change in norms is possible only when there is legislation. They are doing nothing despite stretches reporting high number of fatalities," the farmers' leader added.
When the highway projects were started, under-passes were a common sight aimed at helping locals cross over to the other side and avoiding payment of toll. But several new stretches either do not have the facility or they are so far apart that people are forced to take the highway.
BKU is demanding a policy that provides free passage and special discount for vehicles owned by people living close to the toll plazas. For example, they want identification of a second zone - 20-km around toll plazas - and vehicles from this region should get substantial discount. "We will not allow NHAI to charge hefty toll from people for crossing a plaza daily since they live in that area. They are also allowing contractors to charge toll for stretches which are still not complete," BKU leaders said.
Senior NHAI officials said they had called a meeting of BKU leaders and district magistrates of Muzaffarnagar and Meerut on Friday. They added the representatives were unreasonable in demanding free passage for local vehicles. "Even at present, the user charge for these vehicles is only one-fourth of the normal fee. We have told them we will talk to the concessionaires and find what can be done since every project is run as per provisions of agreements," an official said.
He added NHAI had agreed to build foot over-bridges and underpasses on NH-58 as put forward by the BKU representatives. "We have also told them that the release on compensation for land acquisition has been expedited. NHAI cannot take a decision on reducing toll or free passage. It can be a political decision and for all states, not just for UP," NHAI officials said.
Meanwhile, the highway authority is worried of the consequences of the BKU activists throwing open toll barriers for free ride since the contractors would send bills of their revenue loss to NHAI and the authority has to compensate.