National and state highways in India comprise less than 5 per cent of the roads but account for 80 per cent of the traffic. This mismatch implies that vehicles halting for cash transactions at toll booths add to the chaos, thus making the establishment of state-of-the-art tolling infrastructure and the adoption of related technologies in India a priority. Across the world, tolled highways have emerged as means to effectively manage the use of road infrastructure and fund its expansion. Given the increasing traffic volumes, the shift from manual toll collection systems to electronic systems has become imperative.
Breezing through tolls
As per the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), by end-October 2017, all the lanes of NHAI’s 371 toll plazas will become FASTag enabled. According to the National Payments Corporation of India, the entity that is driving digital retail payments in the country, 14-16 per cent of the country’s toll collection takes place through digital means, and this number is expected to increase once state highways join the initiative. The penetration of FASTag has increased to 18 per cent (as of August 31, 2017) from 12 per cent of the overall revenue of Rs 0.5 billion prior to August 17, 2017. In January 2017, there were 6.4 million transactions conducted on electronic toll collection (ETC) systems and this increased to 9.3 million in July 2017. The cumulative number of FASTags issued has increased from 0.29 million in January 2017 to 0.6 million in July 2017. Currently, there are six private and public sector banks which have partnered with NHAI and have been given the responsibility of running the central clearinghouse and managing all toll transactions. Further the total transaction count from January to June 2017 under the e-mode stands at 61 million and the revenue collected is Rs 16.65 billion.
NHAI achieved its first milestone in ETC by operationalising one dedicated FASTag lane at each toll plaza by September 1, 2017. FASTag-enabled vehicles will now be able to cruise through dedicated FASTag lanes without stopping at toll plazas on national highways. Further, the government has mandated that all new vehicles being sold with effect from October 1, 2017 will be affixed with an active FASTag.
However, despite all these efforts, according to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH), of the 4 million vehicles on highways, only 0.62 million have smart tags installed. The MoRTH is aiming at increasing this number to 1.5 million by March 2018.
Making FASTag accessible
NHAI has launched two mobile apps – MyFASTag and FASTag Partner – in order to facilitate the availability of FASTags for ETC. The FASTag Partner app will allow more than 6,000 dealers in the country to access a single platform and activate the FASTag at the time of the delivery of a vehicle. Before the launch of the app, around 7,500 tags were sold every week on average. Notably, this has increased to 12,500 tags being sold each week after the introduction of the app. Cumulatively, 0.62 million tags have been sold since 2014. With NHAI dedicating one lane for FASTag users at 371 toll plazas across the country, these numbers are expected to go up further.
The State Bank of India (SBI) has partnered with Bhopal-based organisation AISECT for the roll-out of its ETC project across the country. AISECT has won the tender following a bid by multiple agencies and will be responsible for the nationwide sale and recharge of SBI’s FASTags. AISECT will offer the sale and recharge of the tags through the AISECT-SBI banking kiosks nationally. It is also planning to set up booths at toll plazas where its agents will undertake the sale and recharge of the tags.
Meanwhile, NHAI intends to impose fines equivalent to double the amount of the toll fee on non-FASTag vehicles making payments on dedicated FASTag lanes.
Besides the above initiatives, NHAI has also launched a massive awareness campaign to familiarise road users with FASTag and its benefits. NHAI officers have been tasked with visiting toll plazas personally and ensuring the operationalisation of single dedicated ETC lanes. As the penetration of FASTag increases, NHAI intends to dedicate more lanes to ETC at each toll plaza.
Among other technological initiatives, the MoRTH has developed a web portal called INAM-Pro, a platform for infrastructure and materials providers. The portal has recently been upgraded to INAM-Pro+, and will include the A to Z of construction materials, equipment/machinery and services which would include the purchase, hire and lease of new/ used products. At present, the portal hosts 822 buyers and 175 new sellers with 473 products ranging from high-value items like concrete batching plants costing Rs 13 million to small items like road studs.
INFRACON, another MoRTH initiative, is a web-based portal for infrastructure consultancy firms and key personnel. As of July 2017, 376 consultancy firms and over 6,300 consultants were registered with the portal. Further, in May 2016, the central government launched ePACE, an online portal for project appraisal. The initiative captures static and dynamic information for all the projects executed by the MoRTH, NHAI and National Highways Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited.
The development of wayside amenities also forms a key part of major highway improvement projects. NHAI has identified about 183 sites for setting up wayside amenities along national highways. These sites will be developed to provide facilities such as separate parking for cars, buses and trucks, restaurants/food courts, low-cost dhabas, telephone booths, ATMs, fuel stations, minor repair shops, restrooms for a short stay, etc. to highway users. The facilities with an area of over 5 acres will be developed under the brand name “Highway Village” and facilities on an area under 5 acres will be developed with the brand name “Highway Nest”. Further, the ministry plans to develop a network of amenities after every 50 km on national highways. As of August 2017, NHAI has called for private participation on a franchise basis. Private land owners and persons having a minimum land area of over 1 hectare abutting national highways can collaborate with NHAI under “Highway Nest” to develop wayside amenities as a franchise of the authority. As of July 2017, six tenders had been called to develop wayside amenities in Karnataka and as of August 2017, 10 tenders had been called to develop wayside amenities in Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.
Meanwhile, to ensure proper and timely upkeep of bridges, the MoRTH intends to create a database of these structures. The Indian Bridge Management System aims to fill this gap by preparing a database of all bridges in the country and detailing their structural condition so that timely action can be taken to repair the structures or build new ones in their place. Also, highway users will shortly be able to rate national highways across the country as NHAI plans to launch an app through which the real-time status of all highways will be shared. Users will be able to rate the highways on the basis of comfort of journey, traffic management and time taken at toll plazas.
Global payment technology firm Visa has initiated a first proof of concept to showcase open-loop contactless toll payments at NHAI’s Manesar toll plaza. According to the company, once commercialised, open-loop payment systems (compatible with contactless cards issued by any bank or provisioned in enabled devices) will significantly reduce congestion and waiting times at toll plazas. Further, the MoRTH has directed toll companies to install electronic surveillance to reduce overloading by implementing the weigh-in-motion system. Reportedly, strict compliance by toll operators on this front has resulted in revenues rising by more than 20 per cent in some plazas.
Hindrances to success
Despite the advantages offered by ETC and the impetus being given by the government for wider adoption, there remain some key challenges that demand urgent attention. Most important, problems faced by customers with regard to procurement of FASTags could hamper the successful execution of this initiative. Besides the cumbersome procurement technique, some of the other problems are the complicated recharge mechanisms and that individual vehicle users are not inclined to visit branches with multiple KYC documents for tag issue. Also, the grievance redressal mechanism needs to be improved.
Further, implementing a nationwide FASTag mechanism for India’s 96,260.72 km national highway network presents a massive challenge in itself. Acquiring funds for the speedy implementation of this mechanism and procuring the necessary infrastructure are time consuming and can hamper the speedy implementation of ETC systems.
The road ahead
The implementation of a dedicated FASTag lane across all national highways in India will indeed revolutionise the Indian transport industry. However, the smooth implementation requires a robust data storage and ICT software/hardware system that forms the backbone of this system. The introduction of app-based equipment will help in combating the challenges to some extent. Besides, the other bottlenecks that plague the Indian national highways like poor condition of the roads, poor quality of transport infrastructure, capacity constraints, increase in road accidents, traffic congestion, etc., need to be looked into.