On January 26, at a routine party function in Thane where he inaugurated an office of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), party chief Raj Thackeray told his audience not to pay toll and to beat up anyone who questioned them and smash the booth. Toll payers, he said, should not pay toll because they did not know where their money was going. MNS workers were, of course, spurred on by their leader’s speech and went on the rampage, smashing toll booths in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan, Pune, Aurangabad, Sangli and Nagpur. At most of the booths, CCTV cameras caught the action. More than 100 MNS workers across the State were arrested on charges of rioting and arson.
Despite the arrests Raj Thackeray encouraged his men to continue the rampage, and even the toll booths at Mumbai’s sea-link in the heart of the city were not spared.
On January 28, the Pune rural police registered a case against Raj Thackeray under Section 109 of the Indian Penal Code (“punishment of abetment if the act abetted is committed in consequence and where no express provision is made for its punishment”).
Raj Thackeray has been agitating against toll booths since last year. He says he is protesting the collection of toll because proper amenities and services are not being provided. But the fact that he chose to take the fight forward in earnest just months away from the elections indicates that it is not a social duty, as he claims, but rather an early start to his brand of campaigning.
Over the last decade road building in Maharashtra, as in the rest of the country, has gone the public-private partnership way, with the activity being outsourced to private companies on a Build Operate Transfer (BOT) basis. It has been alleged that the companies have not been entirely straightforward about their profits, preferring to under-report them so that they can hold on to the road and the toll booth for longer. The solution to ascertaining the toll burden of road projects lies in electronic displays and centralised computers to record the toll collected. Instead of agitating for this viable solution, Raj Thackeray took to the streets in his usual style.
Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan said the toll collection issue would be reviewed and a new policy formulated. The State is considering a new rule in which single roads may be kept toll-free.
Political watchers are laughing up their sleeves at the MNS’ act, saying it is one more instance of the party following in the footsteps of its big brother, the Shiv Sena. Just a few days earlier the Shiv Sena had vandalised toll booths in Kolhapur in protest against what they called “illegal” tax. Perpetually enraged at his party’s activities being called a tail of the Shiv Sena, Ray Thackeray retaliated by proudly enumerating the other instances in which his party had smashed toll booths.
The last such was on January 16 when his “boys” vandalised a toll booth in Dahisar on the border between Mumbai and Thane districts. In 2012, the MNS had gone on a toll booth rampage but Raj Thackeray had called it off saying he had received assurances that their grievances would be looked into.
The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have taken the high moral ground and debunked both the MNS and the Shiv Sena as goondas’ (thugs) parties, but are actually sailing in the same boat. In December, Nitesh Rane, former Congress youth wing secretary and son of Union Minister Narayan Rane, wrecked a toll booth on the Maharashtra-Goa border some kilometres from Panaji.
Rane was on his way to Goa from his home base of Sindhudurg when he and his entourage were stopped at Dhargal where he had to pay a toll since his car was registered in Maharashtra. He and his followers assaulted the booth operators and smashed the booth barrier. Incidentally, Narayan Rane was an erstwhile senior member of the Shiv Sena, who joined the Congress after he was expelled from the Sena in 2005.