From December 1, motorists across the country can zip across national highways, no longer bothered with hunting for change at every toll booth, thanks to the NHAI’s FASTag. Using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), the tag will ensure that the toll is automatically deducted from a pre-paid account or a bank account connected to it. But, as they cruise unencumbered across India, travellers may lose in terms of experience what they will gain in speed and convenience.
Outside big cities and their satellite towns, the “toll plaza” is more than just a spot to collect money. First, around every window are the guards, official and unofficial, to ensure that nobody gets away without paying. In case of jams and long lines, a slew of informal assistants to the money collector crop up, crowding around car windows to “pre-collect” the money to avoid congestion at the window. But, perhaps, most important of all is the mini-economy that crops up at these points — sellers of suspiciously bottled water appear from nowhere as do vendors of cut kheera and the local, seasonal fruits. There are roasted peanuts and popcorn to be had as well, and in parts of North India, many varieties of “mashoor shikanji”. The only thing missing from the fair-ground atmosphere, unthinkingly defiant of the national narrative, are pakodas.
The collection of the under-employed and the small tradesman at the toll booth has been an anachronism for sometime now. The FASTag is a technology whose time was here sometime ago, and in the larger scheme of things, objections to it on grounds of nostalgia will be understandably ignored. Or dismissed as being Luddite. Yet, as they traverse the country, the big city folk ensconced in their air-conditioned cars will experience just a little less of the country. And, more often than not, a good shikanji is worth the wait.