Tariff dodging takes its toll on India’s highway developers

Tariff dodging takes its toll on India’s highway developers

NEW DELHI - Flashing lights on the roof, tailgating politicians' motorcades, smashing up toll booths, and beating up toll collectors.

Welcome to India's network of privately run highways, where endemic toll dodging is a drag on the finances of road operators such as GVK Power and Infrastructure and Reliance Infrastructure, and a deterrent to private investment in a country where poor infrastructure shaves an estimated 2 percentage points from economic growth each year.

Ambulances, fire trucks and the cars of senior government officials are among those exempted from paying tolls, but other drivers often claim a free ride, said Isaac George, GVK's chief financial officer.

"If an MP (member of parliament) has to be exempted, it's not just his car that is exempted. The entire entourage which follows or goes in front seeks an exemption," he said. "The government has to do something because these are all revenue leakages."

India's cash-strapped government wants private companies to double their share of the cost of building roads and bridges by 2017 from about a fifth in the last five years.

Eight out of every 10 road projects, however, miss revenue expectations in their first year, with the shortfall as high as 45 per cent, according to a 2012 study by Fitch Ratings. The slowing economy, and sometimes inflated forecasts, are partly to blame, but toll dodging is a significant factor, said Fitch India analyst S. Nandakumar.

"There is obviously resistance to tolling, particularly for brownfield or greenfield toll roads which have been tolled for the first time," he said.

THEFT, BEATINGS

The resistance to paying tolls is part of a wider pushback against India's attempt to charge for services such as electricity that have been heavily subsidised or free, and which are plagued by under-investment.

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