(Almost) swindled at the toll-booth

Published: December 22, 2011
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If you don't ask for a printed receipt on the M2 motorway, the toll-tax you pay will never get disclosed in the books.

If you don't ask for a printed receipt on the M2 motorway, the toll-tax you pay will never get disclosed in the books. If you don't ask for a printed receipt on the M2 motorway, the toll tax you pay will never get disclosed in the books. PHOTO: REUTERS

Most of us living in Lahore or Islamabad have travelled via the motorway M2 at least once. Starting at the Islamabad toll-plaza and going all the way to the Thokar Niaz Baig toll Plaza Lahore, the only stops you get to make are at gas stations-turned-restrooms-cum-dine ins. They charge twice as much for a packet of Lays or a bottle of water as the retail price. And even if you choose not to make a stop during this three to four hour spine-snapping journey, do not fool yourself into believing that you saved yourself from these rip offs. Read on.

A few weeks ago I travelled to Lahore and was shocked to find out the toll-tax at both the aforementioned toll-plazas had been ferociously hiked to Rs290 per toll or Rs580 for a two-way trip. The toll and its mystery went unnoticed on my way to Lahore since I wasnt the one driving.

However, on my way back, upon reaching the Islamabad toll-plaza, something strange caught my attention. This time I was behind the wheel. I handed over the Rs290, a usual procedure, and got back a cardboard ticket, the size of a mobile scratch card, with Rs290 handwritten on it. Now, I know for a fact that this is not what a tax receipt is meant to look like.

“Does a tax receipt look like this?” I asked my father, just to make sure.

He nodded.

“Why have they changed the procedure?” I wondered. While I was engrossed in my thoughts, another person came up to the window and said:

“Madam, gaari nikaalain.” (Madam, move the car).

I was not ready to move yet. This time I asked him,

Bhaiyya, pakki parchi bana kay do.” (Brother, give me the printed receipt.)

He exchanged a let-me-handle-this look with the guy sitting in the toll-booth. I instantly knew something was up. The ensuing dialogue, translated from Urdu, went like this:

“Madam, this is the only receipt.”

“Brother, give me the printed receipt that shows the date and time of entry and exit.”‘  I argued.

“Sister, move the car, you are blocking the way,” he said furiously.

But I was adamant and I persisted.

“Brother, you give me the printed receipt, only then will I move the car,” I said in a stern, high-pitched voice and turned the engine off.

“Sister, the printer is out of order,”  came his predicted reply, as he exchanged a glance with the man in the booth.

My dad who was quiet all this time lost his patience finally:

“Who is the contractor here? Hand over the receipt,” he said, so loud that I got terrified for a moment.

I asked him if I should move the car. He directed me to stay. The guy at the booth spoke up this time:

“Sir, please park the car to make way for others, I will make the receipt for you.”

I parked the car ahead of the toll and after a silent wait of five to six minutes, the same person showed up with the printed receipt. My father gave him a stern look and threatened that a complaint will be lodged.

I drove off.

My father has probably forgotten that this incident ever happened, and I assume that these toll-plazas continue to dodge naive tax payers. But here, I want to establish a few things:

The printer was never out of order in the first place. The people at the toll-booth lied. However, they are not to be blamed for not printing out a receipt – they are only following orders. If you don’t ask for the printed receipt, the toll-tax you pay never gets disclosed in the books. Thus, all the collections of the toll-tax go into a few corrupt pockets – not the government treasury. To give you an estimate of how much money these corrupt officials make, let us assume that 500 cars pay the toll every day (a conservative estimate). The stolen tax amounts to over Rs145,000 per day and over Rs52 million per year.

Although the toll-taxes are levied to cover the construction cost of the project (in this case the motorway), after which they should typically be stopped, it seems like this construction project hasn’t been able to cover its costs in all these 11 years and the toll-tax is expected to continue indefinitely.

Even though most people know this now or have already known this, they continue to avoid asking for the receipt in order to ward off the hassle – an act that ultimately encourages the wrongdoers. The printed receipts showing the tax you paid are your rightful claim. It is your money going into the wrong hands. Please, the next time you pay the toll anywhere in Pakistan, ask for the pakki parchi. 

Palwasha.S

Palwasha S

An Economics and Finance graduate who likes to read and write.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.