Toll roads India style

 

GURAGON, India

Laptop bag in one hand and BlackBerry in the other, investment banker Saurabh Chawla slid into his black Mercedes-Benz one morning and headed to his job in the Indian capital.

He cruised past luxury hotels, malls and glass-fronted IT companies on an eight-lane suburban expressway but then hit a sea of vehicles crawling toward a tollgate.

That is where order breaks down and road manners die.

In a mad dash to reach the tollbooth, vehicles begin to weave desperately between lanes to get a few car-lengths ahead. Cars move two abreast in narrow lanes. Others honk nonstop. Arguments break out. Drivers paying with cash clog the smart-tag lane. Vehicles topple plastic traffic cones and painted drums. Traffic policemen whistle at cars in vain.

The rush-hour commute can look like a gladiatorial contest in the stretch between New Delhi and Gurgaon, a booming suburb.

"Sometimes I wait for 45 minutes in the line just to pay the toll" of about 38 cents, said Chawla, 47, looking out of his car window. "It is utter madness and dangerous confusion."

The 16-mile Delhi-Gurgaon expressway is the busiest in India, with more than 200,000 vehicles using it every day. It also connects New Delhi to the financial hub of Mumbai, which has the country's busiest ports. Built for $200 million in 2008, it was meant to be an eight-lane dream run, replacing an old one-lane highway known for its nightmarish traffic snarls.

The expressway was an example of a model in which a private investor builds a large highway project, runs it for a while, then turns it over to the government — a good idea, many here said, for a government without the money to satisfy ever-expanding infrastructure needs.

But the expressway has turned into a symbol of India's failure to cope with the burgeoning traffic, and of the runaway aspirations and impatience of the middle class.

In many ways, Gurgaon, one of India's fastest-growing suburbs, mirrors the country's growth over the past decade and a half. Until the 1990s, Gurgaon was a sleepy farming suburb with a couple of factories and a few homes. But it now has 1.5 million people, a 73 percent increase since 2001.

Gurgaon has followed the classic Indian model of city development "wherein the infrastructure problems are being sorted out after population has started to move in," the global financial services firm J.P. Morgan wrote in a report.

A spokesman for Delhi Gurgaon Super Connectivity, the private company that built and operates the expressway, said in an e-mail that the highway is "comparable to any global expressway project in terms of tolling technology, construction quality, commuter safety and convenience" but that there were problems caused by a "lack of commuter education in terms of the concept of paying tolls and driving discipline."

Obtaining the land to build more lanes and tollbooths to cope with the traffic pressure is also a big challenge, he said.

The spokesman, who did not want to be named because of company policy, said the average toll-processing speed during peak hours is very high, at about 500 to 600 vehicles per lane, per hour.

Clearly, that is not enough.

Frustrated commuters have frequently e-mailed government officials and routinely post pictures, laments and videos on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

In recent months, the expressway has become part of a tug of war among the government, the operator, commuters and local residents. In August, a court ordered the operator to open more tollbooths and deploy more traffic managers. When the traffic jams persisted, the court suspended toll collection during rush hour for a few weeks in September.

Now, the expressway has employed a dozen new toll collectors during rush hour who stand under makeshift, plastic canopies and stop cars manually.

On a recent morning, several cars drove past the canopies without paying. When toll collector Manjresh Kumar tried to stop one car, the angry driver rolled down his window and threw loose change at him before driving off. Another snapped his finger at Kumar's face after paying and added menacingly, "Say, 'Thank you.' "

"One has to swallow the insults," Kumar shrugged.

Last year, a commuter shot dead a tollbooth attendant who had demanded to see his ID.

The mounting frustrations over delays and jams have fueled a demand for an end to the toll. Angry local residents have picketed the gates and forcibly lifted the boom-barrier four times in the past year to stop toll collection.

"We are already paying taxes to the city, on petrol and on infrastructure. Why do we pay an extra toll for the highway?" said Attar Singh Sandhu, the coordinator of the Remove Toll Campaign Committee, who sports a "No Toll" car sticker. "Why can't we use the highway free and make travel easier and quicker?"

The answer to that question gets lost in the din and smoke of the toll plaza every day.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
David Silva strokes home his and City's second goal
football
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
Extras
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value
indybest

News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas