Do you cross-check the highway toll fee with the receipt when you take a road trip? Belagavi-based agriculturist and RTI activist Prashant Burge exposed a huge toll fee fraud and helped NHAI recover about Rs 2 crore of public money.
It was just like any other road trip in his new hatchback from Belagavi to Pune for Prashanth Burge, who is a 38-year-old agriculturist and LIC agent in Chikodi Taluk in Belagavi district, until he realised that the amount in the receipt given at Hattargi user fee plaza did not match the fee printed on the board.
He was awarded an amount of Rs. 10,000 by NHAI under the ‚ÄėCash Reward Scheme‚Äô pursuant to NHAI guidelines, for bringing this issue to light.
Most people would either be ignorant about checking the price or at most times be indifferent, as it would be a small amount to fight for, says Burge.
Burge is not courting rewards. Instead wants officials, who indulge in malpractice, to be punished
"The first time I went to Hattargi toll plaza in November 2012, I was charged Rs.5 extra for a one-way trip for light motor vehicles (LMV), which was supposed to be Rs 15, and when I countered them, they denied taking any extra amount and the receipt given to the drivers was the proof," said Burge, who was not convinced with the response because he had read the revised rates for toll plazas published by National Highway Authority of India just a few days before the trip.
According to Burge‚Äôs records, from November 2012 to March 2013, Hattargi Toll plaza, which is managed by a private agency, Konark Infrastructure Private Limited, had been collecting Rs.5 extra, over and above the prescribed amount for LMV (car/jeep/van) for a single trip and for two-way trips for light commercial vehicles (LCV).
Offered bribes and received death threats
‚ÄúIt was later in March 2013 that I filed an RTI, asking for information on toll prices that were more than the amount prescribed by NHAI, from the Project Director of NHAI PIU,‚ÄĚ he said.
For 8 days after the RTI was filed, some NHAI officials called him 5 times a day and urged him to meet them for five minutes.
‚ÄúI met Ramanujam, the then manager of NHAI, Dharwad jurisdiction and Hattargi toll manager, Sanjay Bajaj in Nipani, in Belagavi district, where they tried to offer a bribe and subtly threatened me by asking me if I knew about RTI activists being murdered. A photographer who came along with me recorded everything from a distance and I have used the video and call recordings as evidence for violation of the RTI Act,‚ÄĚ Burge said.
Provided wrong information to protect image of NHAI
When Burge stood his ground, they promised to send the information in a week. After receiving a reply a week later, the office denied maintaining fee collection records of Hattargi toll plaza and said they would take action if there was a complaint filed.
Burge later sent a copy of the video and phone recording of the conversation to the regional officer of NHAI in Bengaluru. ‚ÄúI made a CD with recording of my conversation with them over the phone for eight days and a video of my meeting with Ramanujam and Sanjay Bajaj in Nipani, and appealed to the regional manager, AK Mathur, NHAI office in Bengaluru to take action, if not the matter would be moved to higher authority,‚ÄĚ he said.
In May 2013, he received telling information which revealed that from November 2012 to March 2013, Hattargi toll plaza had collected in excess of Rs.15,95,825 as user fee and that 3 lakh vehicles had crossed in those five months.
Getting deeper into toll scam
Burge had a hunch that more money was involved and filed an RTI in June 2013 requesting information on the audit report and cash summary of Hattargi toll plaza, between January 2011 and November 2012, to which NHAI officials have been evasive.
Burge also filed a complaint to the then Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Oscar Fernandes, and NHAI Chairman in June 2013 to which they replied saying that NHAI had imposed Rs.1,82,75,000 as penalty on officials of the toll plaza.
‚ÄúWhat was very disappointing was that they had stuck a small A4 size notice in the plaza asking the vehicles owners, who passed the toll between November 2012 and March 2013, to produce the receipt and collect the extra money. It was only for sake of formality, not one person claimed the money‚ÄĚ said Burge.
In September 2015, he filed a complaint along with all the evidence of violations of RTI Act, for receiving threats and being offering bribes, at Central Economic Intelligence Bureau (CEIB) in New Delhi.
Burge is still waiting for audit reports (January 2011 to November 2012) of Hattargi toll plaza and also waiting for action to be taken against the erring officials.
After gaining confidence from the toll plaza scam expose‚Äô, the RTI activist has exposed other scams as well. Burge recently questioned the need for handling charges taken by car showrooms and why it was not mentioned in the receipt.