The steady global economic recovery despite various setbacks has boosted investor sentiment worldwide
Global cues indicate a positive opening for the Indian stock market. The US markets closed with gains in the range of 0.5%-1% on Tuesday while the Asian pack is in the positive zone in early trade today on optimism as Japanese companies resumed production after the devastating earthquake earlier this month. The SGX Nifty was 24 points higher at 5,778 compared to its previous close of 5,754.
Yesterday, the Sensex opened at 18,950, up seven points from its previous close and the Nifty resumed trade unchanged at 5,687. The benchmarks touched the day's lows soon after the opening bell, but resumed their upward move on sustained institutional buying and easing crude prices.
The market continued its northward journey on all-round buying support. The indices touched their day's highs in late trades with the Sensex at 19,226 and the Nifty at 5,770. However, the indices witnessed a marginal retracement from those levels to close in the green for the sixth consecutive day. The Sensex closed at 19,121, a gain of 178 points, and the Nifty settled 49 points higher at 5,736. The Sensex has added 1,282 points in this financial year-end rally that began on 22nd March and the Nifty has put on 372 points in the period.
We expect the uptrend to be halting from the current level, but the market has "turned buy on dips" as long as 17,800 on the Sensex and 5,350 on the Nifty are not breached. The real test of the market will be after Thursday, 31st March, when not only will the derivatives of the March series be settled, but the financial year will come to an end. There is an incentive to keep the prices up until then.
Wall Street closed higher on Tuesday on gains in telecom and energy companies even as investors gear up for economic news like unemployment and manufacturing data, to be released later this week. Home Depot surged 2.9% after the home-improvement retailer announced plans to repurchase $1 billion worth of its shares through a share-buyback program. Chevron gained 1.3% while Halliburton rose 2.3% after saying it expects to step up its activity in Saudi Arabia’s Manifa project following talks with the operator. Halliburton added that the geopolitical turmoil would knock three or four cents a share off its first-quarter earnings.
In economic news, US single family home prices fell for the seventh straight month in January, bringing prices to just above April 2009 lows. The S&P/Case-Shiller composite index of 20 metropolitan areas declined 0.2% in the month from December. Prices in the 20 cities have fallen 3.1% year-over-year compared to 3.2% expected. Meanwhile, US consumer confidence fell in March after hitting a three-year high in the previous month. The Conference Board’ index of consumer attitudes fell to 63.4 in March from a revised 72.0 in February, as expectations about jobs and income growth worsened.
The Dow surged 81.13 points (0.67%) to 12,279.01. The S&P 500 gained 9.25 points (0.71%) to 1,319.44 and the Nasdaq advanced 26.21 points (0.96%) to 2,756.89.
Optimism from Japan on news that Japanese have resumed production after a devastating earthquake and tsunami ravaged the country early this month. Besides, Japan’s industrial output rose 0.4% in February, the fourth straight month of increases. The government said that although output has been showing signs of picking up, the effect of the earthquake must be watched. Other markets in the region were boosted by the positive closing of the US markets overnight.
The Hang Seng surged 1.20%, the Jakarta Composite gained 0.44%, the KLSE Composite was up 0.54%, the Nikkei 225 advanced 1.22%, the Straits Times was up 0.63%, the Seoul Composite gained 0.67% and the Taiwan Weighted rose 0.61%. Bucking the trend, the Shanghai Composite lost 0.17% in early trade.
Back home, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on Tuesday said emerging economies, including India, could legitimately impose capital controls in response to surges in capital flows. Stimulus infusion by developed nations to tide-over global financial meltdown resulted in huge capital flows to emerging markets which offered better returns. However, the surge has also led to problems such as currency appreciation and erosion of export competitiveness.
Foreign fund flows into Indian capital market including debt was to the tune of $39.4 billion, while equities alone attracted investment of $29.3 billion during 2010.
From 1st April, those using the Pune-Mumbai Expressway will have to pay increased toll charges, which the IRB has been permitted to increase periodically. In the seven years since it took charge, the company has more than recovered the Rs918 crore it had invested initially, but it will continue to collect the toll for another eight years. So who decided this? And who is responsible to check the implementation?
While the toll charges for travelling on the Pune-Mumbai Expressway (now called Yashwantrao Chavan Expressway) will increase by from 1st April 18%, that is from Rs140 to Rs165 if you are travelling by car, the total absence of transparency in the toll collection system has again aroused suspicion and anger among commuters. In fact, people from across the country are puzzled as to why toll charges on highways/expressways are increased time and again and why they hardly ever have any authentic information on how much is the annual toll collection of the private agency who has been either awarded the contract on the basis of build-operate-transfer (BOT), or has been given the contract for operation and maintenance of the particular expressway or national highway after it is built.
In the case of the Pune-Mumbai Expressway, Ideal Road Builders (IRB) was awarded the contract of operation, maintenance and toll collection of the e-way (and NH-IV) for the period between 2004 and 2019. Between April 2004 and September 2010, it has already collected Rs949.45 crore by way of toll. The IRB paid an advance of Rs918 crore at the time of the contract agreement in 2004, to be recovered by it through toll collection by March 2019 when the contract terminates. The amount of recovery would include not only its capital investment and interest on it (the Rs918 crore), but also expenses towards operation and maintenance of the e-way. Funnily, there is no total figure of how much it should recover to ensure that it does not make a loss and that it is assured profits, but IRB has been allowed to keep on collecting toll till the end of its contract, with a hike in the toll charges at a regular interval of three years.
I used Section 4 of the Right to Information Act (RTI) between Friday, 25th March 2011 and Monday, 28th March 2011 to request for the inspection of files of the contract agreement between the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) and IRB, and I also asked for the year-wise data of the amount of toll collected from April 2004 to February 2011. I visited the MSRDC office in Pune for this.
As per the statement of IRB which it has sent to MSRDC, it has collected Rs949.45 crore up to September 2010. (See table for year-wise collection details.) But what about the authenticity of the toll figures supplied by IRB? Does MSRDC monitor the collections? The MSRDC officials threw their hands up saying that they were not responsible for this. However, I pointed out to them that this was in total contradiction to the information available on their website, www.msrdc.org, under 'duties and responsibilities of its toll monitoring unit' which states that MSRDC is responsible for: monitoring the toll receipts; scrutinizing claims of various toll collecting agencies and put for approval by competent authority; taking action against defaulters as per contract conditions; corresponding with regional offices regarding toll collection work and; giving replies under the Right to Information Act.
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Worse, as per the contract agreement which I procured during inspection of files on Monday, IRB has been provided with a chart for increment of toll charges, every three years, up to 2019, when its contract terminates. (In fact, MSRDC is to lease out operation and maintenance of the expressway up to 2030. Fresh tenders or renewal of IRB's contract will come up after 2019.) Hence, as per the chart that is a part of the contract document, a car owner who drives on the expressway will have to pay Rs195 between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 2017 and Rs230 from 1 April 2017 to 31st March 2020. (See chart, "Schedule of revision of toll rates on the Pune-Mumbai Expressway") Isn't this arbitrary? Could I see any reference document that allow for these increments? AP Abrol, executive engineer of MSRDC, Pune, explained, "IRB had taken a big risk in investing the initial Rs918 crore, as at that time the expressway was hardly patronised by people, and it almost seemed it would be deserted and MSRDC would incur huge losses. Hence, IRB was given the benefit of the risk factor.'' IRB keeps 100% revenue from the toll charges.
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The ambiguity in the volume and period of toll collection not only for the expressway, but for several national highways across the length and breadth of the country, has led former senior police official SM Mushrif to seek legal intervention, after efforts to procure information under the RTI Act failed. The public interest litigation (PIL) filed by him in 2006 is pending before the Bombay High Court.
When Mr Mushrif asked through the RTI, about the rule under which toll collection is done, the MSRDC provided him a copy of a central government notification dated 5 May 2005 (issued by the Ministry of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways) that states: "As per Rule 3 of the National Highways (collection of fees by any person for the use of section of national highways/permanent bridge/temporary bridge on National Highways) nothwithstanding anything contained in the Act'', the agency is "entitled to collect and retain fees at such rate, for services or benefits rendered by him as the central government may by notification in the official gazette, specify having regard to the expenditure involved in building, maintenance, management and operation of such national highway, interest on the capital invested, reasonable return, the volume of traffic and the period of such agreement.'' This rule applies to the highway departments of state governments too.
Similarly, Mr Mushrif stated that, "as per Rule 6 'verification of fee collection' sub-rule 1: it should be the responsibility of the person (the MSRDC in this case)…to strictly ensure that all fees leviable are levied, collected and correctly maintained. The person shall submit certified audited copies of the statements of fee collection at specified intervals as required under the notification for collection under sub-rule 2 of Rule 3. The auditor shall be appointed by the government. And as per sub-rule 2: The central government shall have the right to check the fee collection at any or at all times through their designated officers.''
Interestingly, the MSRDC has appointed an independent consultant for monitoring toll collection. However, the engineer of this consultancy company who was present while I was conducting inspection of files told me that, "We monitor everything else, like operation and maintenance, but do not look into the revenue from toll collection.'' Why? Government officials would not like to talk about this aspect, but it reveals favouritism towards this particular private agency.
A couple of months back, social reformer and activist Anna Hazare threatened to launch an agitation against illegal collection of toll. This was after a high-level committee of PWD chief engineers recommended that 31 out of 165 toll nakas in the state should be abolished as they were set up in blatant violation of norms prescribed by the Centre. Under pressure, the state government closed down 20 of them. For the record, Maharashtra has 165 toll nakas; 28 of which belong to the National Highways Authority of India; 61 belong to the MSRDC and 56 to the Public Works Department.
Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convenor of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at [email protected]