Shortage of tags, confusion may hit govt’s FASTag plan
The 15-day leeway that the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) had sought for implementation of FASTag has not been of much help, as toll plazas around Delhi continue to face a crunch in FASTag stickers, even as users remain confused about issues like recharge and payment.
In a move aimed to reduce bottlenecks at national highways, the Centre had mandated that all lanes of national highways toll plazas to be declared as FASTag lanes by December 15, 2019. On Saturday, the Centre relaxed its rules for the rollout of the mandatory FASTag mechanism of paying at national highways, allowing more collection centres to accept cash payments instead of the previous directive that limited it to one.
The Centre’s earlier deadline mandating FASTags by December 1 had been postponed to December 15 to provide more time to commuters to make their vehicles FASTag-enabled.
FASTag, a radio frequency identification (RFID) sticker typically fixed to a vehicle’s windscreen, lets toll booths wirelessly and automatically deduct the fee such that a vehicle would not be required to stop.
Hindustan Times drove along the National Highway (NH) 44 — the longest-running major North to South national highway in India that begins from Srinagar and terminates at Kanyakumari in a FASTag-enabled car up till Ambala in Haryana from New Delhi. HT also visited the tollbooths on NH-2 in Faridabad, on Eastern Peripheral Expressway (EPE) near Kasna in Greater Noida and Palwal, on Yamuna Expressway at Jewar — all located around the national Capital — on November 28 and then on December 13, and found the situation largely unchanged.
According to the NHAI, currently 537 tolls plazas are FASTag enabled.
At the seven-lane Bhagan toll plaza on NH-44, confusion prevailed among passengers over which lanes were for FASTag. A toll operator at the plaza who asked not to be named said, “We have kept five lanes for FASTag-enabled vehicles, while the rest are all cash for now.” However, HT observed that cash was being used in all the toll booths, including the one titled Express FASTag.
“There is a bit of chaos right now as people are rushing to get their tags before the deadline. We have two kiosks selling the tags at our booth,” the toll operator added.
As per Saturday’s communication, not more than 25% FASTag lanes will be temporarily converted to hybrid lanes. Those who wish to pay cash will not be charged double the toll amount in these hybrid lanes.
However, if they were to pass through a FASTag lane, they will still need to pay double the amount.
“NHAI officials have been coming for site visits, the problem right now is of handling the chaos of managing those who enter FASTag lanes and pay with cash. We have to take them aside to avoid jams,” an NHAI executive at a kiosk in Bhagan toll plaza, said.
Technical glitches within the software of FASTag issuing agencies as well as a shortage of tags led to long queues at Faridabad and Palwal toll plazas on Friday. However, the manager at Jewar tollbooth on the Yamuna Expressway said that the FASTag regime was not applicable on the Expressway as it was a private road.
At the Faridabad toll plaza, commuters lined up since the morning were yet to get FASTags when HT spoke to them in the evening.
“It has been five hours and my turn still hasn’t come. There are no arrangements to manage the crowd and neither have the authorities given us any tokens. No one is telling us when tags will be available all I am hearing is shortage of tags,” said Shakeel Hussain, who works in a private firm.
Tanuj Garg, a businessman from Palwal, had applied online on Patym for a FASTag but it wasn’t delivered. “I decided to get it offline at nearby toll plaza but here too they had a shortage.”
“Other than toll plazas, the NHAI had also set up counters in Ghaziabad, Noida and Delhi so that people can easily procure the tags,” said a senior NHAI official, who did not wish to be named. Twenty two companies, including private and nationalised banks, have been entrusted with the task to issue FASTags, he added.
To expedite sales, the union minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, announced last month that all FASTags sold by NHAI will be given free of cost till December 15. However, other companies were charging between ~400-500, which included a security deposit.
As per figures provided by the highways authority, average daily transactions under FASTags grew from 8.8 lakh in July to 11.2 lakh in November. The average daily collection grew from ~11.2 crore to ~19.5 crore in the same time period.
At the L&T Toll plaza at Panipat, one NHAI executive said they were struggling to cater to the demand of passengers. “We have run out of FASTags. People rushed to the kiosks since we were giving for free.”
Confusion also prevailed among commuters over the usage of FASTags.
Ankur Agnihotri, a government bank employee,wondered whether the amount would be deducted on each occasion that the same vehicle crossed the same toll plaza in the space of a day. “Will FASTag users have to pay at each toll? This is costlier than the a one-time payment. If there is a wrongful deduction of money from the FASTag account, where will the user complain?”
A commuter who said he had been using FASTag for a while now said there were issues to be ironed out. “I have been using a FASTag for the past two years now and it has been a huge pain to even recharge it. I take roughly 3-4 trips from Sonipat to Shimla every month and hence need to use it frequently. Toll operators were extremely rude, I just got charged at another toll booth yet they stopped me and asked me to pay cash even after I showed them my balance has been deducted. They informed me my card had been ‘blacklisted’,” said Vikrant Varma.
Many, however, appreciated the move saying that it will bring transparency and but expressed concern over linking their bank accounts to their FASTag wallets online, as they were not sure how secure this was.
“I am a frequent traveller so I think that the online regime will certainly reduce time and queues at the toll plazas but the security of users’ bank accounts remains a concern,” said Avin Shrivastava, who works in a multinational company in Delhi.
The managers at different toll plazas admitted that there would be chaos initially.
Many said they had their eye on the big picture: FASTags would reduce the time of toll collection, help avoid scuffles between drivers and toll officials and also bring transparency in toll collection.
Mahesh Bharadwaj, manager at Palwal toll plaza on EPE, said that though all the infrastructure and system has been updated at tollgates but there was a large segment of vehicles which is yet to procure tags. “On an average 9,000-10,000 vehicles pass from this toll everyday and out of which nearly 60% have FASTags,” he said.
A manager at SOMA-Roadies toll plaza in Karnal said on December 12, nearly 60% of the vehicles that used the toll plaza did not have FASTags.
The central implementing agency of the FASTag programme, the Indian Highways Management Company Ltd (IHMCL) and Goods and Services Tax Network (GSTN) in October signed a memorandum of understanding for integration of FASTag with GST e-way bill system.
Truck drivers and other commercial vehicles drivers were among its most satisfied users. Baljeet Singh, a truck driver who takes about four trips a month from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh to Baddi in Himachal Pradesh said, “Our FASTag is recharged by the fleet owner and it has been very convenient so far and saves us a lot of time.”
Gadkari has said that he expects India’s toll revenue to swell to ~1 lakh crore with the electronic toll collection programme from approximately ~30,000 crore per annum currently. Of the total 1.4 lakh km highways under NHAI, 24,996 km of highways currently is under the toll ambit and the length will increase to 27,000 km by the year-end, according to the transport ministry.
(With inputs from Neeraj Mohan)