India is at crossroads. The development is there but the pace naturally is slow. Societal discontent is growing.
In the hullaballoo of political dramatics the nation is ignoring two big agitations – truckers’ strike and Maratha mob burning even the fire engines. While the Marathas for their unruly behaviour could get attention, the truckers putting their vehicles off the road have lost sight of all. Both are for economic reasons. Marathas till the other day most powerful social group, which they still have not lost, are scrambling of 16 percent of the reservation in government services.
The Maratha grudge is not unfounded. Private sector is not creating jobs. The ones they give lack the basic wages and respect for the humanity. The government alone remains the model employer.
The truckers’ strike has disrupted supplies in many parts of the country. Their demands are genuine as they are finding it difficult to have even the minimum margins. They are demanding among other things cut in central and state levies on diesel to bring their operational costs affordable.
They are also demanding end to “flawed and non-transparent” toll collection system that favours road concessioners and alleged that the time and fuel loss amounts to up to Rs 1.5 trillion annually at toll gates, truck operators claim. The automatic tags have not helped much.
Truckers are also miffed at high insurance premiums and want a reduction in third-party premium and a GST exemption on third-party premia. That apart, they are also pressing for exemptions and abolition of indirect taxes, national permits for all trucks and buses and doing away with the direct port delivery tendering system.
Let us look at Marathas, Jats, Gujars and other powerful groups who had not joined the Mandal agitation in 1989. They are all farm-based agricultural communities. At that time they were satisfied that the system was taking care of them. But 30 years of globalised Manmohanomics has thrown its doors open for global players and the farmers have gone into a severe distress zone.
The government is aware of it but is unable to look for system that would give these groups relief. Higher MSP has not helped them. Policies to increase farm production have led to a glut of wheat, sugar and pulses. Should they produce more and earn less? Today the government has also decided to open pulses stock in the market.
Obviously it would lead to crash in prices. Sugar is also critical in Indian and international markets. Farmers are not getting remunerative prices. The government job-holder is envy for them. So why not join it and at least be assured of a minimum living standard, which farming is not giving them.
The loan-waivers are of least help to them. Why cannot the government, opposition, farmers and policy planners sit together to evolve workable system?
Same is the issue with the truckers. They are the lifeline. If it does not assure minimum income, it is not worth doing it. While farmers are suffering for apathy, the truckers are having problems of over-attention. Everyone considers it to be a lucrative business, so there are direct levies and indirect cuts by RTOs and other law enforcing agencies amounting to thousands of crores of fleecing.
So what they are demanding is logical. Insurance has become the biggest business and all the time they pressurize the government to allow them raising premium for virtually nothing. Even the farmers, it is now known, gets less of insurance benefit and help insurance companies multiply their profits.
Apart there still is plethora of indirect taxes. The 2-rupee road cess on every litre of fuel has been replaced with Rs 8 per litre road and infrastructure cess on petrol and high-speed diesel. This was announced in the Budget 2018. It is to realise Rs 1.13 lakh crore.
There is toll at almost every 20 km. It causes jams, fuel and time loss, delays and puts a heavy burden on all.
When already the people are paying Rs 1.13 lakh crore annually, which was about Rs 32,000 crore till 2017, why should there be a concessionaire to collect toll? And for whom they are collecting?
Sensible government needs to immediately abolish the toll. It is fleecing. It causes delays. It has given to a mafia rise. It leads to law and order problems. As per NHAI collection figures the tolls used to cost the nation approximately Rs 25,000 crore. So why is this huge inflationary levy?
The government should consider doing it away immediately for political and economic reasons. The NHAI expenses are also not transparent, a point the truckers have raised. It means the tolls are bleeding the nation.
And who does it not affect? It hits the farmers, whose products, because of duel levies – fuel cess and tolls – become doubly expensive as also gives the truckers and farmers less margins. It hurts the consumers who have to bear continuously an illegal tax. It does not help either the central or state governments. They have to unnecessarily incur huge expenses to keep the toll gates brawl-free.
The NHAI is on record that it does not receive more than one-third of the levies collected by concessionaires. It also means that NHAI does neither need the tolls nor the concessionaires.
The strike is said to cost over Rs 5,000 crore a day to the truckers. In addition manufacturers have been forced to shut down or cut production. It has disrupted supply of essential commodities, particularly vegetables, fruit and dairy products. It is affecting farmers. Many FMCG firms are also facing supply disruption. Even online firms’ supplies are hit.
There is, however, so far no move at Transport Bhavan in Delhi or in states.
This is time to give a serious thought to the fleecing levies being realized. The cess on fuel is itself inflationary. Levies like tolls and GST almost on every tax, including house tax, defy logic. The 2014 poll had promises to do away with income-tax, road tolls and many other taxes. Except GST which has subsumed central levies, most levies remain like that except states having changed their nomenclature.
Now it should be implemented. A toll-free highway journey is the right of the people after imposition of heavy Rs 8 per litre road cess.
An affordable road travel will help all – the farmers, truckers and the people. The sooner it is done would lead to progress and development – the call of the hour.
(By Shivaji Sarkar. Views expressed are personal)