IWPR, September 25, 2012
Highway Robbery on Major Afghan Road
By Enqelabi Zwan
Local officials in Afghanistan’s Laghman province are taking tens of thousands of US dollars a month in fees and taxes from drivers using the Kabul-Jalalabad highway, and the way the money is collected indicates that it is being pocketed.
An investigation by IWPR contributors over a three-month period reveals that various forms of irregular fees are being imposed on the road.
First, the toll that drivers are legally obliged to pay is not subject to the mandatory documentation. Second, truck drivers have to pay bribes to let their overweight vehicles pass. Third, local government officials charge road users a “municipal tax” which does not even exist. And all the while, traffic police are levying their own informal “fees”.
Although Afghan media have reported on this issue before, this is the first attempt to track corrupt practices on the Kabul-Jalalabad road.
Since extortion takes place on an individual basis, gathering evidence is a laborious process. Interviews, videos and photographs gathered in the course of this investigation suggest that staff from three areas of government bodies are involved – the Ministry of Public Works, municipality employees, and the traffic police.
A rough calculation based on IWPR’s observations suggest that officials net around 50,000 dollars a month, meaning a potential loss to the treasury of millions of dollars over recent years. And that is only on one road, in one Afghan province.
ROAD TAX PAYMENTS GO UNDOCUMENTED
On the stretch of road running through Sorkhakan district, the Afghan public works ministry has a checkpoint tasked with levying a toll on light vehicles as well as trucks carrying freight. The checkpoint has a staff of 12 revenue officers from the ministry, who are required to collect the toll in Afghan currency, issue a receipt to the driver, and transfer the funds to the relevant government bank account.
The officers do collect fees, but negotiate a discount for drivers who agree not to take a receipt. The lack of paperwork, and the fact that fees are collected in Pakistani rupees rather than afghanis, suggest that the funds will never reach Kabul.
Afghan Highway Police officers participate in a joint patrol with U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan, March 17, 2010. (Photo: Master Sgt. Juan Valdes/U.S. Air Force.
Pakistani rupees, known locally as “kaldars”, have been in common use in eastern Afghanistan for the last two decades. Even though they are not legal tender in Afghanistan, they are widely used for day-to-day transactions.
The going rate at the Sorkhakan checkpoint is between 100 and 600 rupees (one to six US dollars) depending on the size of the vehicle. The official rate, calculated by the kilometre for the distance between Kabul and Torkham on the border with Pakistan, is about 320 afghanis for large vehicles and 50 to 110 for smaller ones.
“Tax officials take money off me every time I come through Laghman,” Mir Wali, driving a truck full of flour and rice to Kabul, told IWPR. “It isn’t more than 300 or 400 rupees. They’d stop my truck if I refused to pay up.”
IWPR interviewed another man, Akbar, driving a truck carrying cement, at a restaurant stop on the approaches to the checkpoint.
“Whenever the transport officials stop me, I put 400 kaldars in their hand and drive on. If I asked for a receipt, they’d take 300 afghanis instead of 400 kaldars [six dollars instead of four],” he said. “Since I gain by paying 400 kaldars, I forget about the receipt.”
For this investigation, an IWPR contributor stopped 75 cars and trucks on the road, although only 25 drivers were prepared to be interviewed and have their voices recorded. They gave accounts that confirmed Akbar’s description of the process.
Over the course of six days, the reporter also monitored vehicles as they left the checkpoint, and discovered that in the space of one hour, 80 drivers paid fees, all of them in rupees and virtually none with a receipt.
At an average rate of, say, 50 vehicles an hour paying 100 rupees a time, the checkpoint must be taking at least 3,600,000 rupees a month, about 36,000 dollars.
Sayed Nusrat Agha, director of public works in Laghman, has direct responsibility for road tolls collection in the province. Interviewed by IWPR, he confirmed that the checkpoint staff employed by his ministry were required to accept only afghanis in payment and to issue receipts.
Shown two video clips in which staff were seen breaking both these rules, he said, “this is all lies” and angrily left the room.
IWPR also approached the tax officers themselves on four occasions, but they refused to comment on the grounds that the ministry had instructed staff not to speak to the media.
BRIBES FOR OVERWEIGHT TRUCKS
Another section of the public works ministry has responsibility for ensuring that freight vehicles are within the prescribed weight limit of 40 tons. Here, too, IWPR has uncovered unorthodox practices.
There is a healthy flow of commercial traffic up and down the highway, especially of vehicles transporting cement, rice, fresh fruit and other foodstuffs to the Afghan capital.
At an office in Kamar Mashal in Sorkhakan district, the trucks are driven onto a set of digital scales to check their weight and ensure that they are not carrying a load of over 40 tons . According to the rules, offending drivers have to remove any excess freight on the spot and pay a cash fine.
But a sample group of 12 haulage drivers told IWPR that they were regularly five, ten or even 20 tons over, and simply handed over sums of 10,000-20,000 rupees (100 to 200 dollars) to the weighing station staff so that they could drive on with their load intact.
“I have 45 tons of cement in my truck, five tons more than the maximum set by the government,” Jawid, a driver coming up to Kabul from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, said. “A few minutes ago, when the machine showed I was five tons over, officers told me to go over to that old guy and he’d sort me out. I went up to the man, who cooks food for the officers. He told me to pay 20,000 rupees and make the problem go away.”
Jawid duly paid the sum and went on his way.
“The officials are afraid of being caught taking bribes, so they use their cook as broker,” he alleged.
The reporter monitored the weighing process over several days, and concluded that with a minimum of five large trucks coming through every hour and paying an illicit fee of 10,000 rupees a time, the total inflow of cash-in-hand payments could be at least 6,500 dollars a month.
Staff at the weighing station refused four requests for an interview, saying – like their colleagues at the highway toll point – that their superiors had expressly barred them from doing so.
Drivers and the traders who employ them say the practices at the Laghman weighing station are so much part of the routine that they just factor illicit payments into their costs.
“By law, we have to load our trailers up to 40 tons, but the traders ask us to carry up to 50 or 60 tons, because they know the weighing officials won’t say anything as long as they get paid,” driver Mir Wali said.
Nasrullah, a merchant originally from Laghman and now living in Kabul, has been bringing in cement along the highway for the last two year.
“Transporting 60 tons of cement to Kabul is more profitable for us than taking 40 tons at a time,” he said. “We pay the drivers 1,100 dollars extra for the additional 20 tons, and we know they pay more than half of that sum as a bribe to government officials and keep the rest themselves. But we still make a huge profit by doing this, as transporting a separate load of 20 tons of cement from Torkham to Kabul would cost us up to 3,000 dollars.”
A third fee that drivers using the Kabul-Jalalabad highway have to pay is described as “municipal tax”. Such a payment does not exist in Afghan law, but local government officials collect it both on the highway and on another road from Laghman’s provincial centre Mehtarlam to Kabul.
IWPR spent ten days monitoring and videoing officers collecting 20 rupees from every driver. Operating from a specially-built office by the roadside, they stand guard from seven in the morning to seven in the evening. They are armed with one-metre-long sticks, and threaten drivers who are reluctant to pay up.
Drivers interviewed at various points along both roads confirmed the practice.
“I take passengers from Laghman to Jalalabad four or five times a day, and every time I go through the Sorkhakan area, the municipality people take 20 kaldars from me and don’t give me a receipt,” taxi driver Maruf said.
Maruf said this had been going on for the last ten years, and nothing had ever been done to stop it.
IWPR’s reporter calculated that six vehicles an hour translated into 28,800 rupees or nearly 300 dollars a month.
To find out more about the payments, the reporter went to Mohammad Fahim, who heads of the municipality office in Sorkhakan. He had been filmed taking money from drivers.
“Based on what law, bill or order are you taking 20 rupees from the drivers?” the reporter asked.
Fahim replied, “I don’t know.”
He then said he was not authorised to give interviews, adding, “Go to the mayor and ask him why the money is collected, and where it goes.”
The reporter duly went to see Abdul Moqim Abdullah, the mayor of Mehtarlam. After nine unsuccessful visits, the reporter managed to interview the mayor, who acknowledged that his staff were collecting a tax, although he would not comment on what happened to the money.
Abdullah said “I have told my employees to take ten afghanis [20 cents, equivalent to 20 rupees] from each driver as a tax, but the allegation that they don’t give receipts to the drivers is a lie.”
Shown film of municipality staff collecting rupees and abusing drivers, Abdullah said, “These are not my employees. They belong to the traffic department and [public works ministry] traffic; that’s who takes money from drivers by force.”
After being presented with more evidence, Abdullah conceded that the individuals shown in the footage did work for his administration.
“These actions by these four employees are against the law. I promise I will stop them,” he said.
POLICE FILMED EXTORTING CASH
Yet another hazard for drivers going through Laghman is the traffic police who stop trucks heading from Nangarhar to Kabul and arbitrarily demand payment
IWPR filmed four separate examples of the practice in the Sorkhakan district, and spoke to nine truck drivers who said police had been exacting payment for years. Refusing to pay would simply make trouble, they said, as police would then stop them and accuse them of a traffic offence.
Even at 100 rupees or one dollar, IWPR calculated that police net 180,000 rupees a month, or some 1,800 dollars, over the course of a month.
The traffic police department chief in Laghman, Abdul Samad, told IWPR that officers did demand money from heavy goods vehicle drivers, but insisted there was nothing illegal going on.
“We impose a fine on some trailer drivers and we take money from them. It’s a fine, not a bribe,” he said.
Overall, the picture suggests that little attention is being paid at higher levels of government to tax collection from motorists, that there is at least considerable confusion between legal and illicit practices, and that systems for tracking revenue streams are not being implemented.
Enqelabi Zwan is an IWPR-trained reporter in Afghanistan.
Characters Count: 13902