Mahabalipuram Entry Toll ; should this be illegal
The tourist town of Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) in Tamilnadu about 60 odd Kms south of Chennai has the following rule.
- All Cars/Vans entering the town pay 40 Rupees
- All bikes pay 10 Rupees
- This is not linked to any actual tourist visit – even transiting the town attracts this toll
There was a news item in todays Deccan Chronicle print edition that one Advocate Sudhan has approached the Madras High Court against this practice. Apparently he was approached by some youth who stopped his vehicle and demanded Rs 40 – he protested and approached the Police station in Mahabalipuram. They dissuaded him and warned him some big shots were behind this and asked him to be careful. He then took the case to Madras High Court. I personally have faced this and have managed to control my rage. I am so happy that someone has tried to bell the cat. This issue may appear to be a trifling one but I think this case involves some very fundamental issues.
The basic question is this
Can residents of a town, which is in endowed with some tourist attraction impose a toll on all outsiders ?
Yes. Why Yes?
No. Why No?
Is this question worth examining in detail ? Is it simpler just to fork out the 40 bucks and not exert brain cells over this ? This is exactly what millions of people have been doing for years now. This issue is now before Chief Justice Kaul – let us see if we can examine this issue and extract any ground rules/principles. Before that the toll imposed must possess the following three characteristics.
First : The town is endowed with a tourist attraction that is immovable by nature. For example – the town has a geographical feature, an archaeological or historical structure. If the town has a less permanent attraction ; like Bars, Hotels, a Fair – then those are mobile. If the tolls are high those attractions can move.
Second: The tolls are collected by a local body. This is not just a bunch of thugs. They are youth hired by the local government to collect the tolls.
Third : The tolls are not specific to any specific goods or services. In Mahabalipuram – you have to pay a separate fee for parking, fees for each tourist monument. You may not visit any monument but you still have to pay the toll. It is basically an entry tax. There is a by-pass road nearby but that does not in any way mean you are prevented from transiting Mahabalipuram via the town.
Given the above three properties of the toll. The following arguments will certainly be advanced by its supporters.
Look punk we are local body govt who represent the town of Mahabalipuram. We are lucky to be endowed with archaeological structures and we have every right to monetize the tourist flood. This toll money will be used for various goods.
The argument sounds good but is actually hollow. The fault in this argument is not if they can monetize but how they monetize. The tourist flood spends tons of money in various shops selling trinket and food. This is how the majority of townfolk get the money. Also each service such as the parking lot charges separately. Those are legitimate income streams. Imposing a tax on all Indians entering the town is not because it impinges on freedom of movement (Art 19(4). The fact that there are a) zero services in exchange for this money and b) that only paying the toll buys you the freedom of movement only proves there isnt any grounds for restricting this.
So my rules would be as follows.
- No entry tax for any town
- Tolls allowed only for roads that are specifically designated
- No local body has power to impose entry tax on anyone unless there is a law passed by the state legislature to that effect
- If there are other kinds of tolls they must be in exchange for a very specific service such as parking, paid toilets, etc
Another variant of this abhorrent practice seen in almost all temple towns in Tamilnadu goes like this. You go in a car and park anywhere near the temple – say 2-3 streets away – some kid will run up to you and stick a token in your hand for 20-50 bucks. There is no explicitly marked parking lot. Therefore this is just an tax on anyone who comes to the temple in a car. The politics behind this are very simple. Local dominant groups trying to extract a tax from outsiders in the absence of weak legal framework.
Ask yourself – you agreed for 40 bucks. Will you agree for 100 bucks? What if you had a car load of kids eager to visit ? What if you were poorer ?
Hope this petition succeeds and all tolls levied by local bodies that are in the nature of entry toll are declared illegal.