March 2013
#Borders , 989 Views
The Toll Guy

Author: Mohamed Rizwan
Photographs: Tenzing Dakpa

He’ll let you pass whether 2AM or 2PM. But who is he?

Kaliram Saina likes to walk. Whether he’s assigned the demanding afternoon shift or the night shift – there are three eight-hour shifts in all – he finds time for his daily hour-long walk. Sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening, sometimes both, and as he lives in Kapashera, a mere two kilometres from the Delhi–Gurgaon Expressway, it’s also how he gets to work.

Booth number 34 is Saina’s office on the night we meet him. The Delhi–Gurgaon Expressway has 36 booths in total: each of these booths is equipped with a computer that monitors the number of cars that pass the booth, a live CCTV stream, a printer that prints toll receipts, extra print rolls, a cash tray, a speaker that beams radio messages from the control room and an air conditioner. Not all air conditioners work.

Standing inside Saina’s cabin, it’s not the line of vehicles queuing that stands out – there’s never enough time to look up – it’s the wall of sound. The collective buzz of a thousand expectant engines and the constant ‘woosh’ of the booms as they go up and down, mixed with the rattle of a dot-matrix printer and the proximate hum of the air conditioner give Saina’s cramped 2’ x 8’ cabin a disproportionate sense of importance. But with over a lakh of vehicles passing through this toll each day, you could argue that this significance isn’t disproportionate at all.

Toll operators are paid a basic salary, plus incentives. Incentives are linked to the number of vehicles an operator allows through his booth. And on an average, 400 to 500 cars pass through any one booth. It’s a high-pressure job that demands constant vigilance and affords only two 15-minute breaks in an eight-hour shift.

But, “it’s a stable job”, Saina explains. Before joining the ranks of the toll operators, Saina worked as a door-to-door salesman, where his income was directly linked to the sales he made. And tasked with selling educational CDs, he didn’t make very many sales at all. Now, with a basic salary of Rs 6,500, as well as added enticements he takes home anywhere between Rs 9-11,000 a month. Sale or no sale.

And it’s not just the steady income he appreciates. Most toll operators are in their twenties and, like him, are “unmarried”. Since landing the job six months ago, he’s made a fair few friends; most have worked the booths for years, but, far from being competitive, there’s a genuine sense of community, and an appreciation for what each of them do every time they step inside a booth.

How long will Saina stay at the booths? His response is assured and free of urgency: “Until a suitable opportunity comes up.” Until then it’s cash-for-receipts, keeping his vehicle numbers up and yes, more evening walks.