Defence personnel who complained of boorish behaviour by attendants at toll plazas across the country will now encounter a course correction. The soldiers will be given a salute or standing ovation at the road tax collection kiosks while on the move.
A policy circular issued by the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) last week said the move is in view of the “unparalleled service” of defence personnel towards the country for which they deserve the highest regard and honour.
The circular came on the heels of complaints that soldiers were not only forced to pay toll charges but were also treated rudely by attendants. Personnel of the Army, Navy and Air Force have been exempted from paying at any toll plaza in the country.
However, members of the Territorial Army and NCC were entitled for exemption only when they were on duty. The defence forces had complained to the NHAI that despite explaining to the toll attendants that they were on official duty, they often used harsh language against the personnel and insisted on checking their identity cards.
Taking note of the complaints, the NHAI also ordered that only a competent authority or officer of the toll operating agency, and not the lower staff, can check the identity cards in case of any doubt. “Considering the unparalleled service of the armed forces towards the safety and security of the county, such kind of rude behaviour is not acceptable.
The armed forces personnel deserve the highest regards and should be given due respect at the toll plaza including salute and standing ovation as deemed fit,” the circular issued by the highways authority said.
The NHAI has also directed toll operators to train their staff to pay due respect and salute the men in uniform for their “selfless dedication to the country”.
“The verification of the identity cards of armed forces personnel should be done by some senior/competent authority and should not be left up to the untrained lowest staff,” the circular reads.
The Indian Tolls (Army & Air Force) Act, 1901, provides for exemption from toll charges to all members of the armed forces. However, the controversy occurred after a letter issued by the ministry of road transport and highways (MoRTH) said only those “on duty” would be entitled for the exemption.
This resulted in toll operators insisting defence personnel to pay toll charges and this often led to misbehaviour by toll attendants. The armed forces claimed the letter was in contravention of the Indian Tolls Act.
The transport ministry also cited a noting of the law ministry that Section 3(b) of the Act only permits toll exemption to defence personnel who are “on duty”. However, sources said the condition was only applicable to the Territorial Army and National Cadet Corps (NCC) personnel.
The government of India has exempted 15 categories, including dignitaries, from paying toll charges. These include the President, vice president, Prime Minister, chief justices and judges of the Supreme Court and high courts, governors and chief ministers, cabinet ministers, members of Parliament, MLAs and foreign dignitaries.
The exemption is also extended to the armed forces, paramilitary forces, gallantry award winners and emergency vehicles like ambulance and fire tenders. Recently physically challenged persons with more than 40 per cent handicap were also exempted from paying toll tax on highways. As the tussle between defence forces and the transport ministry escalated, the matter was dragged to court and later the SC also ruled in favour of the armed forces, upholding the exemption.
The NHAI, while extending relief to the armed forces, has told the toll operators that in case of any doubt, the benefit must be given to the defence persons.
“Considering the extreme sacrifices of the defence forces towards the nation, in case of any doubt with respect to nature of their official duty, the benefit of doubt must appropriately be given to the armed personnel,” it said.