Editorial: Life in the FASTag lane

The Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has mandated that all vehicles are fixed with the FASTag, which will allow for contactless, cashless, and electronic collection of fees at toll plazas across India.
Editorial: Life in the FASTag lane

Chennai

Based on radio frequency identification technology (RFID), the system is aimed at speeding up the vehicular passage between crucial checkpoints, reducing waiting time and the consumption of fuel, as well as cutting down on overheads such as maintenance of manpower and reducing corruption. The Centre has also warned that those without FASTag stickers will pay double the fees following the discontinuation of hybrid lanes. 
The implementation was initially slated for January 1 this year but was extended to February 15, offering motorists an extended deadline for compliance. Not that this worked wonders, as toll booths across the state witnessed vehicle owners making a last-minute scramble to purchase their tags. The government’s step might seem timely considering the losses the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) incurred during the pandemic. Last April, it was reported that the NHAI would incur revenue losses to the tune of Rs 1,822 cr owing to the suspension of toll collection charges on national highways during the initial days of the lockdown. 
The toll plazas by themselves are significant sources of income for NHAI. As per an ICRA report, the quantum of toll collected from over 570 toll plazas across India in FY2019 was Rs 24,396 cr. On a daily average, that touches Rs 66.84 cr per day, and it’s estimated to increase at a rate of 3 per cent soon. But all that money in the pocket of the government was weighing heavily on the transport industry that was facing losses upwards of Rs 60,000 cr a year, due to slow truck speed on highways and more importantly, delays at toll plazas. Making the FASTags mandatory seems to be the government’s solution to this problem. 
This development is taking place in the backdrop of Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari saying that the use of GPS based toll collection will ensure that India becomes toll-plaza free in the next two years, adding that toll collection may touch Rs 34,000 cr by March 2021. This move towards digitisation is not without its criticisms. One of the arguments is that going completely cashless will not be an overnight solution in a country like India, something we have learned the hard way during demonetisation. 
The necessity of recharging one’s FASTag account through a prepaid wallet could be understood by tech-savvy smartphone users. However, a big chunk of the labour force in India, especially workers such as container truck and lorry drivers involved in essential services of transportation and logistics, are yet to be covered by the ambit of digitisation, and will face challenges during the onboarding and usage of FASTag. In the event of the FASTag being unreadable, there’s a possibility one would have to shell out cash to pay the toll booth fees, thereby defeating the purpose of FASTag. 
While the technical hiccups will be ironed out gradually, there’s one question at the forefront of the minds of citizens for several decades now. Private and non-commercial vehicles already pay road tax once in their lifetimes, while commercial and passenger vehicles pay an annual sum towards it. Now, the government has mooted the proposal of a green tax as well. In spite of all these sources of government revenue, the notion of a toll plaza still exists - as a vestige of public-private partnership in India. 
Citizens have reached a point where they have realised that taxes, like death, is an inevitability. The best one can do is delay it, but there’s no denying it. However, in return, there is a clear expectation from the government to direct all these sources of revenue into offering citizens motorable and safe roads. After all, it’s already been paid for.

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