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Sunday, Sep 15, 2019

At Kherki Daula, a job that takes its toll

On June 21, a female operator was allegedly slapped, punched and manhandled by a man after he refused to pay the toll. On the same day, a lane attendant had to be rushed to the hospital after a car tried to speed through the barrier when he tried to stop it.

gurgaon Updated: Jul 01, 2019 07:26 IST
Sharanya Munsi
Sharanya Munsi
Hindustan Times, Gurugram
A woman operator seen at the Kherki Daula toll plaza, in Gurugram. The plaza on an average lodges 15-20 complaints a month. Around 2-3 escalated cases out of these complaints end up as FIRs. (Photo by Yogesh Kumar/ Hindustan Times)
A woman operator seen at the Kherki Daula toll plaza, in Gurugram. The plaza on an average lodges 15-20 complaints a month. Around 2-3 escalated cases out of these complaints end up as FIRs. (Photo by Yogesh Kumar/ Hindustan Times)
         

A car stops by a narrow booth at the Kherki Daula toll plaza on NH-8. Inside the booth, on a wobbly seat is a 22-year-old woman uniformed in a red kurti and blue dupatta. A man dressed in a checkered formal shirt with gold rimmed dark sunglasses hands over a Haryana Police ID card. When the operator examines the card and asks the man to pay the toll, he refuses and starts to unlock his door. The operator slides shut her window pane in a flash. She calls out to the lane attendant standing outside her booth to help. After a brief altercation with the attendant, the man gets into his car and the attendant asks the operator to let them through. “Put it under the government employee quota,” the attendant says.

“I don’t get into any argument. I ask them once. If they refuse to pay, I simply close my window. That is the first thing I do. Then, I call for help. You never know how people will react,” says the female operator, who does not wish to be named.

This ordeal is repeated several times through the day at a toll where close to 250 employees run over 28 booths. The above mentioned operator’s precautions to avoid conflict stems from the fact that the Kherki Daula toll plaza, ever since it started operating in January 2008, has recorded periodic incidences of violence such as abuse and assaults on operators, flashing guns and cars speeding away while attendants grab on to the car — all over refusals to pay toll.

The latest episode took place on Friday when a spokesperson of the toll operating company was assaulted with a brick by a commuter who refused to pay toll. On Thursday, the same spokesperson and another lane attendant were allegedly carried on the bonnet of a car for almost 200 metres by toll evaders.

On June 21, a female operator was allegedly slapped, punched and manhandled by a man after he refused to pay the toll. On the same day, a lane attendant had to be rushed to the hospital after a car tried to speed through the barrier when he tried to stop it.

In May, two men flashed a toy gun to evade toll. In April, a lane attendant was dragged for 3km on the bonnet of a car for stopping it from not paying toll. Incidents such as these have gone a long way in convincing operators that a day without conflict is rare.

“All types of people pass through here, and a lot of them are unpleasant, but I have to deal with them nonetheless. It’s part of the job,” says another female operator, who also chooses not to be named. She is seated at a booth with a barely working air-conditioner as the temperature hovers around 39 degrees Celsius. Multicoloured wires snake around her feet at the base of her chair.

For some time now, residents in the area have been up in arms, trying to get the plaza removed. They allege that the plaza, which is in the vicinity of several residential buildings, causes major traffic congestion leading to long queues and longer waits for commuters between Delhi and Gurugram. In 2017, Union minister for road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari announced that the toll plaza would be shifted 8km away, towards Manesar.

When the toll plaza was being set up, the state government had recognised 31 villages, residents of which would be exempt from paying toll. The eligible cars were provided with “fast tags” that are automatically detected at the toll plaza and allowed to pass. Exemptions are also allowed for defence personnel.

Personnel of the Haryana Police are not exempted officially, but are let through by the operating vendor company on an informal basis, says Amit Singh, plaza manager. Despite the restricted number of people exempted, a commuter will pass through every few minutes, flashing an ID and asking for an exemption.

“People keep flashing cards with local addresses. Some are authentic, others are not, but one cannot always discern their legitimacy,” said an operator as she punches away on a keyboard.

Soon enough, a car arrives carrying sadhus clad in saffron. The driver rolls down his window and asks to be let through. The operator hails an attendant. An understanding is met and the helper asks the operator to tab this car “under government of India.”

“Everybody wants to save money by not paying toll. It doesn’t matter even if they are driving a BMW,” Singh said.

Kherki Daula sees over 71,000 cars pass through every day, leading to average daily collections of ₹37 lakh, say officials of Millennium City Expressway Private Limited (MCEPL), which runs the toll. Police officers at the Kherki Daula police station, less than a kilometre away, are well aware of the frequency of violent incidences.

“As soon as we get a complaint concerning the toll we immediately rush there. If it is a cognisable offence, we lodge a complaint,” Kuldeep, SHO, Kherki Daula police station, says.

The plaza, on an average, lodges 15-20 complaints a month. Around two or three cases of these complaints end up as FIRs, Singh said.

As per the public relations officer of the toll plaza operator Skylark, they lodged between 18 and 20 complaints and registered five FIRs in 2019. Last year, Skylark had got three FIRs registered, and lodged 35 to 40 complaints.

The operators, though happy with the steady flow of income, know that they cannot do this in the long run because of the risks involved. Some see it as a stepping stone towards safer employment.

“We get our salaries on time and even get medical benefits, but I can’t be doing this forever,” says 22-year-old Chouhan, who has been working at the plaza for the past five months. He says he has secured a job at the Honda factory and is waiting for his brother, who works at the plaza as well, to clear the recruitment process for the factory.

Officials of MCEPL agree that commuters at the Kherki Daula toll plaza have a tendency to be rude. But they do their best to keep the environment safe through direct lines in each booth to the control room and daily briefings on how to handle unruly commuters.

“Employees do get scared when they see such behaviour, but the promptness with which we come to their aid, support them and try to protect them also keeps them motivated,” Mohammed Sohrad Khan, assistant toll manager, MCEPL, says.

Archana, who started working at the toll a year-and-a-half ago, is also about to leave her job.

“I have been taking computer classes for the past few months. I got my certificate and a job as well. I will sit in an office, and help input data in a human resources system,” she said. From Varanasi, she previously worked at a toll plaza in Agra. However, she has not revealed the nature of her current job to her family.

“They don’t know that I work at a highway toll booth. They are happy as long as I am safe,” she says.

First Published: Jul 01, 2019 02:52 IST