Making FASTag compulsory for new vehicles is not a bad move in itself. But so much else needs to be done if the goal is to promote the wide use of FASTag.
The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) yesterday (2 November) announced that all new four-wheelers will have to have a FASTag affixed to it from December. While the intent of the move – to promote the use of FASTag – is no doubt a good one, it can also prove futile if one takes a closer look at it. That’s because of the lack of usability of the FASTag. The move is akin to a bank issuing free debit cards for new account holders when there is neither an ATM nor a vendor who accepts cards, in the vicinity.
The real problem with FASTag is that it is still accepted at only 370 toll plazas across the country. Some national highway stretches such as the Hubballi-Dharwad bypass along the Mumbai-Chennai highway completely lack an electronic tolling system, thus making the common use of FASTag a distant dream. Further, due to jurisdictional issues such as roads being operated by different authorities (central, state and municipal), not all toll plazas may have an electronic toll collection (ETC) system in place, thus pushing away the possibility of a smooth cashless drive.
So, what should logically be the best way to popularise FASTag use?
One, get every toll plaza in the country on the bandwagon. Most states and some cities in India operate tolled roads. Barring the Satara-Kolhapur highway in Maharashtra, no state-operated toll plaza uses FASTag yet. Some, including the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI)-built Bangalore Elevated Tollway, use FASTag at one of their two toll plazas and an independent on-board unit (OBU) at their main toll plaza. If every toll plaza is on the network, it would drastically reduce wait times and make things easier.
Two, ensure full compliance of FASTag. Many toll plazas have FASTag lanes, but many of them are non-functional. The Indian Highways Management Company Limited (IHMCL), which manages the entire operation, needs to penalise concessionaires that have dysfunctional lanes and must be proactive when it comes to solving issues that arise when FASTags don’t work.
Three, expand the scope of the FASTag. When introduced in 2014, it was envisioned for various purposes including for parking lots and to pay congestion charges (similar to the London congestion charge). Since airports and railway stations are directly under the jurisdiction of the central government, it would be easier to set up FASTag systems there. Unlike toll plazas, they wouldn’t require dedicated infrastructure – a simple handheld scanner would also do. Given how several railway stations and bus stations have parking contracts given out to shady companies who may cheat users, this would help significantly. Airports, railways, bus and metro stations should be the first among this lot. Municipal parking lots and pay and park zones should be next.
Four, make payments flexible. Currently, FASTag has only a prepaid option and there is a 10 per cent service charge levied on online transactions. The service charge needs to be reduced and a post-pay option needs to be introduced.
Five, enable better sale of FASTag for existing car owners. Given the sloppy and lacklustre implementation so far, newer vehicles getting FASTag would hold little significance if the existing users are not already on the system.
Unless the government seriously looks at the implementation of FASTag, mandating the tag on vehicles is not a game changer. Again, toll plazas too need to be more proactive in this regard by penalising those who enter FASTag lanes without a tag, which in itself is a disservice to those who have the tag.
Getting new vehicles on the grid is not a bad move, but ensuring that there is some value in return for it is what will get the system up and running and ensure a smoother drive. Otherwise, the FASTag might very well see a death similar to that of the original More Card in 2012.