Noida(UP),Sai Manish: A dozen bridges. London has almost that many across the river Thames to facilitate easy movement of vehicles through the city. Delhi is a picture in contrast. Office-goers and commuters from South Delhi are forced to rely solely on the Noida toll bridge to commute across the Yamuna to the National Capital Region.
But the shocker, dna investigation revealed, is that no other bridge can ever be constructed across Yamuna. The Noida Toll Bridge Corporation Ltd (NTBCL), a subsidiary of infrastructure behemoth Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS), that operates the toll bridge has virtually patented the monopoly on extortion rights. And cushioning this toll monopoly are none other than the governments of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh (UP) whose 'support' to the private company has now forced people to protest on the streets for removing the toll.
In addition to the controversial concession agreement signed by NTBCL with the UP government in 1997, another 'Support Agreement' was signed between the governments of UP and Delhi on January 14, 1998. Ironically, the BJP was in power in both the states during the time with Sahib Singh Verma at the helm in Delhi and Kalyan Singh in charge of UP. A few months after the agreement was signed Sushma Swaraj took over from Verma as Delhi's CM.
The Support Agreement that was signed initially stated that the governments of Delhi and UP would not 'propose, recommend, implement or permit to be implemented' any toll free bridge or road which spans across the Yamuna river between Okhla Barrage and the Nizamuddin Bridge for a period of 10 years or till the time the road achieves 'full rated capacity'. Full-rated capacity was defined as a peak hour movement of 16,000 cars.
While the Okhla barrage is to the South of the existing toll road, the Nizamuddin bridge lies to the north of the toll road. In a single agreement between themselves, the governments of Delhi and UP gave up their rights over almost 14 kilometres of the river over which many bridges could be constructed to ease Delhi's traffic problems. "The agreement gave a virtual monopoly to NTBCL over connecting South Delhi with Noida. The clauses were later modified to benefit the company even more" says Ranjit Saxena, an advocate who is fighting a case against NTBCL in the Allahabad High Court for abolition of the toll.
In what appears to be a sleight of hand, the Support Agreement was subsequently amended. According to NTBCL documents, the amended clause replaced the word 'full-rated capacity' with the word 'partial capacity'. The devil in details becomes apparent in the very definition of 'partial capacity'.
The Support Agreement defined 'partial capacity' as a situation where the Noida toll bridge sees a peak hour movement of 9,600 cars or more (60% of the full rated capacity of 16,000 cars during a peak hour). No other road could be built by the Delhi and UP governments till the time the toll bridge recorded partial capacity for a 'consecutive period' of 180 days. On any single day, even if one car less was recorded during a peak hour the Delhi and UP governments would be prohibited from constructing another bridge across the Yamuna river.
Given the nature of traffic movement in Delhi, it is impossible to ever achieve that capacity for a consecutive period of 180 days in the forseeable future. Traffic movement from Delhi to Noida dips significantly every weekend. Moreover, traffic on the toll bridge falls sharply on festivals and holidays in the national capital. In effect, the Support Agreement virtually eliminated the prospect of any other bridge coming up between Nizamuddin Bridge in the north and Okhla Barrage to the south of the bridge forever.
"Favouring a particular concessionaire, especially when it comes to urban transportation, is unacceptable. There is an urgent need to build atleast four to five more bridges across the Yamuna around the area. You can build it under the river or over it. If the national capital region has to develop, we have to move away from this mindset of unbridled profiteering," said Rohit Baluja, president of Institute of Road Traffic Education.
What further engenders suspicion is that the record of vehicles and the toll collected is being kept by a company promoted by both IL&FS and NTBCL. In 2008, IL&FS along with its sister company that operates the toll bridge, NTBCL, floated another company called ITNL Toll Management Services (ITMSL) that took over toll collection of the bridge from a Dutch company.
Since IL&FS is also the biggest lender to the project, it has the power to appoint an 'independent auditor' and 'independent engineer'. Since there has been no government audit into toll collections and vehicular movement at the Noida Toll Bridge, all figures on the basis of which the construction of alternative bridges across the Yamuna has been prohibited, are being provided by the very company whose interests in continuing the monopoly are at stake.
IL&FS, the company in the middle of this storm defended its actions. "IL&FS has supported this project by funding when there was an increase in debt. People who think that we are making enormous profit don't know how things work," said K Ramchand, MD of IL&FS Transportation.
Residents in the National Capital Region (NCR) have long been maintaining that even ambulances cannot make their way through the serpentine queues and traffic snarls on the Noida toll bridge. "The toll road operators are playing with human lives. If anyone living in Noida has to make an emergency visit to nearby hospitals of Delhi, they have no option but to go through the toll bridge. They have collected more than they invested. It is time to close this toll and dismantle the booths," said NP Singh, a resident of Noida.
"You cannot build a city on tolls. Convenience of the people should not be based on tolls. People in the city should be able to move fast and free," added Baluja.