Members of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a local political party, shout from a bus after being detained by police during a protest against toll collection in the state. (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

As drivers lined up at a toll plaza outside Mumbai one recent morning, they were stunned by a bizarre sight. Dozens of protesters armed with sticks and stones had descended on the tollbooths, shattering the windows and smashing computers and lights inside. The toll operators fled.

The assault was part of a broad protest in which dozens of tollbooths were attacked and set ablaze across the industrial state of Maharashtra.

“I wanted to put an end to this ongoing looting called tolls,” Neelesh Chavan, the local leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a rabble-rousing regional party that organized the protests, said in an interview.

Tollbooths have become unlikely flash points as India tries to build more and more roads using private investment. The country’s burgeoning middle class is demanding quality roads and expressways. But many Indians have yet to fully accept the notion that they will now have to pay for them.

The toll roads are part of an ambitious mission in the past 15 years to greatly expand India’s highway system. The government traditionally built the country’s roads. They were often in a woeful state but were free to use. With the economy slowing, however, the cash-strapped national government needs private companies to fund almost half of the total investment in building roads and bridges, up from about 30 percent until two years ago.

Citizens have voiced a variety of complaints about the toll roads. Car owners say they already pay road and vehicle taxes and should not be forced to hand over more cash. Some residents feel they are being fleeced by the private companies that build and operate the roads. And some rural dwellers fret that they can no longer walk with their animals along the bustling highways. Villagers in the state of Rajasthan have asked for separate byways for their cattle and camels.

The anger over the tollbooths has occasionally flared into violence. In 2012, a member of Parliament — who is exempt under Indian law from paying the toll — flashed a gun when a tollbooth attendant demanded to see his identity card. A year earlier, an attendant was fatally shot by an unemployed young man who refused to pay the toll.

Some of the demonstrations have been successful. Last month, a toll plaza on an eight-lane, 16-mile expressway that connects New Delhi with its booming, upscale suburb of Gurgaon was shut down after two years of protests over the tolls and chronic traffic jams caused by an insufficient number of booths and slow-moving attendants. Jubilant area residents celebrated by chanting slogans in favor of a “toll-free India.”

Looking at toll reform

In Maharashtra, in western India, the anger over tollbooths reflects some people’s belief that the private companies operating them are fleecing the public.

Sanjay Shirodkar, a traveling salesman who lives in the state, said he had unearthed numerous irregularities when he began contacting government departments for information about the public-private partnerships two years ago. He found that although the law called for one tollbooth every 37 miles, companies had erected booths a scant nine miles apart on some roads. His research is part of a public-interest lawsuit filed in a Mumbai court last year.

“Who is giving away these contracts to erect booths?” Shirodkar asked. “There is complete collusion between corrupt politicians and private companies.”

He said that tolls were being charged even though the roads had potholes and lacked bathrooms, ambulances, bus-bays, highway patrols or even lane dividers.

“For two years, we presented our reports, made proposals with folded hands, filed a petition in court. But nothing happened,” said Bala Nandgaonkar, a Maharashtra Navnirman Sena member and lawmaker in the state legislative assembly. “The government is deaf. It only understands the language of violence. So we began attacking the booths to draw attention.”

His supporters have tacked up signs on the toll plazas that say “Don’t Pay the Toll” and “Stop This Toll Fraud.”

The government in Maharashtra says it is formulating a new toll policy. It has also promised to remove the tolls on about 30 roads this summer.

“The toll system is relatively recent in India. All this is part of our learning curve,” said Prithviraj Chavan, the chief minister of Maharashtra. “The government will now count the number of vehicles on the tolled roads so that nobody fudges the data. If you [the company] recover your investment, the toll price must start coming down. After you make some profit, you must exit. Earlier, the contracts were vaguely worded and were designed to favor private companies.”

Operators see political motives

Businesses involved in building the toll roads say that the protesters are being unfair.

“Today they want a toll-free India; tomorrow they will say everybody is entitled to a free ride to the moon. But this does not augur well for the way we plan to build infrastructure,” said Ajit Gulabchand, chairman of Hindustan Construction Co., which built India’s first eight-lane suspension bridge, in the heart of Mumbai. Protests erupted there last month.

“How will you recover your investment if you do not charge a toll?” Gulabchand asked. “We thought this debate had been discussed, argued and settled.”

He and other construction executives say the anger against tolls is being fanned for political reasons. National elections are scheduled to take place in a few weeks, and state elections in Maharashtra are due later this year.

“They are all portraying us as though we are standing on the road and looting people,” said Virendra Mhaiskar, managing director of IRB Infrastructure, which builds and operates many of the toll roads in Maharashtra.

“Unfortunately, in the election season, it is taboo to speak in favor of private investment and the toll model of building infrastructure. You are looked at with suspicion. So nobody is speaking in our favor.”

He added that the government published on its Web sites the details of toll-road contracts, including the quantity of booths allowed and the number of years in which tolls would be charged.

“Why complain only after the investment is made, the road is built and the tollbooths erected?” Mhaiskar asked. “If it is unfair, they should shout before the investment is made.”

Nationally, India’s Ministry of Road Transport and Highways is trying to address some of the frustrations by implementing an electronic toll-collection system, with chip-embedded stickers placed on vehicles, to ensure smoother traffic flow.

Meanwhile, in Maharashtra, police have arrested hundreds of protesters on vandalism charges in recent days. The tollbooth operators have pleaded with the government for round-the-clock police protection.