The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) on Thursday told the Madras High Court that the public exchequer did not incur any loss due to the non-collection of toll from vehicles with party flags and those used by VIPs. The court was informed that private agencies engaged for operating toll plazas would have to bear the brunt if they failed to collect toll from such vehicles.
Filing an additional counter affidavit before the first Division Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy in response to a public interest litigation petition, the NHAI said it collected a fixed amount towards daily collection from private agencies engaged for toll collection, and therefore, the question of the government suffering loss due to exemption granted to certain vehicles would not arise at all.
Since the PIL petition pertained to two toll plazas between the Tambaram and Tindivanam section of the Chennai-Madurai National Highway, the NHAI said it had been collecting ₹29.18 lakh a day and ₹23.68 lakh a day from the agencies, which had been authorised to collect toll at the Paranur and Athur toll plazas respectively. The agencies were bound to remit the amounts quoted by them.
“As such there will be no loss to the government exchequer on account of allowing vehicles, if any, by the toll operator at his risk and cost,” the additional affidavit read.
It was filed in response to a query raised last year when the present PIL petition was heard by another Division Bench led by Justice M. Sathyanarayanan, who feared that it might take decades to recover the capital cost incurred for laying highways if many vehicles were exempted from paying toll.
On Thursday, the litigant’s counsel, M.J. Jaseem Mohamed, contended before the first Bench, led by the Chief Justice, that the NHAI had indulged in “daylight robbery” by continuing the collection of toll at Paranur and Athur without any end in sight. After hearing him for some time, the first Bench granted him two weeks to come up with exact details regarding the quantum of toll collected from different types of vehicles at the two plazas.
The NHAI had already filed a main counter affidavit in the case last year, stating that the collection of toll on National Highways could not be stopped on the expiry of agreements entered with private concessionaires on a build, operate and transfer (BOT) basis. The authority said it was entitled to continue the collection till the full recovery of capital cost of individual projects, even if it took more than three decades to do so.
Listing out several components for determining the capital cost of a project, it said: “The initially estimated year of capital recovery period or payback period of investment is always traumatised by unpredictable forces like the rate of inflation, change in rate of interest, change in pattern of traffic, alternative options and emerging technology, among other things.”
The court was informed that the NHAI had entered into an agreement with GMR Tambaram-Tindivanam Expressways Private Limited on October 9, 2001, for carrying out four-laning of the stretch on BOT (payment of annuity) basis. The concession period was 17-and-a-half years, including the construction period of two-and-a-half years. The appointed date for the project was declared on May 9, 2002, and as per the agreement, the concession period expired on November 8, 2019.
However, between May 2005 and November 2019, the NHAI paid an annuity of ₹1,219.39 crore to the concessionaire at the rate of ₹41.856 crore every semester. Apart from this concession agreement, the NHAI entered into separate agreements with private entities for building toll plazas, operating them and collecting toll.
Accordingly, user fee collection at the Athur and Paranur toll plazas began on April 1, 2005, and till November 30, 2019, only ₹245.07 crore was collected from Paranur, and ₹203.84 crore from the Athur plaza.
Further, stating that the total cost incurred for executing the project, indexed to the year of construction, was ₹922.61 crore, the NHAI said since only ₹448.91 crore had been collected so far from the two plazas, the balance capital cost of ₹473.70 crore was yet to be recovered.