On November 2 at about 10 pm, Abid pulls up alongside the Delhi-Noida toll booth after battling a long traffic snarl. Most of the crawling traffic comprises of rows of trucks of all sizes and a few buses, much beyond the usual logjam seen at this hour.
Abid is carrying potatoes from Madhya Pradesh to Kurukshetra in Haryana. Like all truck drivers paying the toll today, he is asked to pull out his bilti — which is toll slang for pink slips that indicate where the freight has been picked up and where it is destined.
“Are you going outside Delhi or within? Show us the bilti,” says the toll booth in-charge while coughing through the shroud of smog. He says the air quality is worse than usual today.
Abid yells back saying they never ask for the bill. The man replies, “Today, trucks from outside Delhi cannot go in. You have to take a U-turn.” Coughing again, the toll in-charge pulls out his handkerchief and covers his nose — the sole protective gear — which he says he usually pulls out only by 2 or 3 am.
Ignoring the honking of vehicles behind, Abid gets out of his six-wheeler truck and tries to reason with the official. “…I have to go back 500 kms… my potatoes will rot…,” he pleads. But 10 minutes later Abid’s truck is seen crawling even more slowly towards the u-turn, 100 m ahead of the toll booth.
The move is a result of a Supreme Court order for an environmental cess on trucks not destined trucks for Delhi. The cess was to be levied at all entry points to the city from November 1. But it is yet to begin as the concessionaire appointed to collect toll by the corporations, SMYR Consortium LLP, expressed reservations.
From Monday night, however, non-destined trucks were turned back though the tax is yet to be levied. Meanwhile at the toll booth, identifying non-destined trucks takes time leading to long queues of vehicles.
Two traffic policemen are already on the road trying to make way for other vehicles. The smog cover has grown thick. Red-eyed and coughing, toll staff try to bring in a semblance of order.
Most of those asked to turn back are those carrying food grains. Incidentally, the issue of whether to levy tax on trucks with food grains was one of the 11 quandaries pointed out by SYMR. Toll staff, though, said they were turning away all trucks. Within three hours of their shift, they had identified 40 non-destined trucks. Two SUVs were on standby in case a driver tried to make a dash into the city. But with only six people manning the booths, staff were glad they did not have to chase anyone.
At 11.45 pm at the Shahdara toll booth on the Delhi-Ghaziabad border, Harkesh Bal Singh is one of several truck drivers asked to turn back. He gets down and starts arguing about alternate routes. After a lot of yelling, Bal learns that trucks which left went back via Shamli in Uttar Pradesh. “That is a forest area. (It is) not safe at night. It is better if they take extra tax money from us rather than inconveniencing us like this,” he grumbles. By 1 am, over a 100 trucks have been asked to return.
Some like Abid found ingenious ways to tackle the problem. An hour later, he is back to try his luck again at the Noida toll.
The power lines are down and the toll booth is enveloped in darkness — an opportunity many like him have grabbed. This time when he is asked for the bilti, he just says he is going to the mandi. When the toll staffer asks which mandi, Abid coughs out, “Kurukshetra”.
He adds as a seeming afterthought. “Kurukshetra in Delhi… bhai” . The man confirms, “In Delhi only?”. When Abid nods, he is quickly issued a pass and his money collected.
But he barely starts his engine when the toll in-charge comes running. He has caught Abid. “What did he tell you… why did you issue him a pass. You fool… Kurukshetra is not in Delhi,” he yells at his staff while warning Abid.