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Toll Plazas and Judges: A Tall Order?

Toll Plazas and Judges: A Tall Order?
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Above: The multiple lanes at Trichy toll plaza help commuters save time, though many toll junctions may not have as many lanes/Photo:

In a surprising order, the Madras High Court has asked that separate lanes be provided at toll plazas for judges and VIPs across India. Will this stir a hornets’ nest?

~By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

This is one High Court order that will be difficult to implement. The Madras High Court has directed the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to provide separate lanes at toll plazas for judges and VIPs across India.

A division bench of Justices Huluvadi G Ramesh and MV Muralidharan said: “It is disheartening to note that the vehicles of VIPs and sitting judges are stopped at toll plazas…It is very unfortunate that sitting judges are also compelled to wait in the toll plaza for 10 to 15 minutes.” The judges made it clear that this order would be applicable across the country and the Court would issue showcause notices to those who did not abide by it. “Those who defy it willfully or otherwise would be dealt with seriously by the Madras High Court. Those concerned people then would have to face the contempt,” the judges warned and directed both the central government and NHAI to issue circulars to this effect to all concerned.

Incidentally, a High Court’s jurisdiction prevails all over the country, but generally Courts don’t impose such orders. A problem will arise only if another High Court gives an opposing judgment. In that case, the matter will be taken to the Supreme Court.

The High Court directed NHAI to allow vehicles of judges and VIPs to use the lane marked for emergency vehicles. Stating that it is embarrassing to be stopped at toll plazas to produce identity documents, the judges said: “It is very unfortunate that sitting judges are also compelled to wait at toll plazas for 10 to 15 minutes (and that this issue) has not been taken seriously by the Union government and NHAI.”  The Court will take up this matter after four weeks.

It has been learnt from top sources that the NHAI is likely to challenge this order. A source at NHAI who did not want to be named told India Legal: “This order is very difficult to implement. Creating a dedicated lane for judges and VIPs would not go down well with the general public. Moreover, if we create a separate lane for them, it would be heavily underutilised because the number of vehicles carrying such people at most toll plazas is numerically thin.”

The issue cropped up while the Court was hearing a batch of petitions related to dues payable to toll plazas. This included one from L&T Krishnagiri-Wallajapet Tollway Limited which asked the Court to direct the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation Limited’s Villupuram and Salem divisions to pay their dues. During the arguments, the bench raised questions about whether the toll plazas were following the rule that dedicated lanes are to be made for emergency vehicles. It was then that the judges expressed concern at the way vehicles of judges were treated by the staff at toll booths.

This order has raised eyebrows and surprisingly, was criticised even by a few retired High Court judges who are known for their integrity. Justice K Chandru, a former judge of the Madras High Court, told India Legal: “Last month, four Supreme Court judges of West Virginia (in the US) were impeached after an inquiry proved that they had excessively spent on office renovations. Their troubles are not going to end with impeachment. They will face trial in the West Virginia Senate. So what is not due to you, you certainly cannot take it.”

He further explained: “The Madras High Court is functioning from Chennai. Another bench of the Court functions from Madurai and it has 16 judges. In Madurai, the judges’ housing quarters are just a three-minute walk from the High Court. In Chennai, the judges’ quarters are just six to seven kilometres away from the High Court. In both these places, there is no question of paying at a toll plaza or waiting as there are no toll plazas in Chennai or Madurai. The problem arises when the judges go on a private journey outside Chennai.”

He also said that most judges choose to fly when on professional duty. The charge that they are asked to show their identity cards is not correct either as every judge has an armed escort for protection, he said. “Moreover, their drivers always carry identity cards. High Court judges are one group among 25 categories of VIPs who are exempt from toll plaza charges. So money is not the issue. The issue is waiting. For that, we have to take a holistic view now. Waiting for 15 minutes or so affects everyone and for that, we have to find a solution which should benefit everyone, not just judges alone.”

But there are other judges who have welcomed this order. Justice TN Vallinayagam, a retired judge of the Madras High Court, told India Legal: “There are already VIP lanes at toll plazas. The trouble occurs when authorities allow other vehicles, including politicians with party flags on their cars, in those VIP lanes. We are not asking for separate lanes to be created for judges and VIPs. We are only asking that existing VIP lanes be used only by VIPs, including judges.”

Related to this issue was another demand—a separate pay commission for the judiciary. In 2015, at a conference of chief ministers and chief justices held in Delhi, a note was prepared by judges’ representatives which urged the government to have “an institutionalised framework for periodic revision of their salaries” by setting up a separate pay commission for the judiciary.

It said that the government should consider revision of salary at least once every five years to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

It also referred to post-retirement benefits for judges, including being allowed to avail of medical facilities at private hospitals like serving judges and demanded that the government arrange transport facilities too for these retired judges to reach private hospitals. It further demanded that the government appoint a liaison officer for every retired judge to assist him in making appointments.

Is that a tall order?

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