Lush green Shola trees (with a few pines, silver oaks and eucalyptus); the macaques screeching and trying to steal the food the tourists are munching on; the random Covid swab test by the health department and the strict scan of the forest department and police behind the municipality barricades: the Kodai Toll Plaza today. Just as you speed up after handing over your token at the booth, the Silver Cascade’s waters come into vision, blinding white at times and the colour of thick coffee brown during monsoons; then, there is the aroma of freshly steamed and roasted sweetcorn, deep-fried bajjis.You know you are in Kodai when you encounter all these sights and smells.
When you enter, the first sight that greets you is the enormous arch proclaiming: ‘The Princess of Hills – Kodaikanal Municipality – Welcomes you!’. The Kodai Toll Plaza came into existence around thirty years ago.The century-old Ghat Road or State Highway (SH) 156 has seen many phases, moving from stone road to mud road, to narrow tar road – to the well-structured highway it is today. On weekends, cars queue up, appearing like vari-coloured ants from far away, slowly inching their way up into the town.
What is it like there today? During the pandemic, the screening of tourists has been very strict. The health department conducts random checks on people to assess their vaccination status; if people can show that both doses have been taken, they are exempted from further procedures, otherwise tourists are asked to take a swab test. Necessary action is taken when a person is encountered as positive by the Kodaikanal Municipality.
Revenue collected at toll booths is distributed for maintenance and renovation of the SH 156 (officials declined to comment on the exact amount collected). The Kodaikanal Municipality’s initiative is to keep the road well-maintained, and the Toll Plaza has served us well in this respect. The primary area of work is channelizing the rainwater that cuts through the road, damaging it significantly. Water channels serve two purposes: Firstly, to restrain rainwater from eroding the road, and secondly, to conserve rainwater through guided waterways to the forest.
While ambulances, government official vehicles, and two-wheelers (considered the poor man’s vehicle) get a free entry token, tourist-heavy vehicles are charged Rs. 200 each, and four wheelers Rs. 50. Locals who belong to the Vilpatti panchayat and Vadakavunji panchayat are exempted from paying the toll fees, however.
‘We, the local residents, were given the stay exemption only after a lot of fighting and giving numerous applications,’ Jayaram Mayavu, 38, a local resident and driver who drives through the toll booth two or three times a day, told The Kodai Chronicle.
‘Now, especially in the last decade, the road has developed to a great extent. Moreover, we are able to reach the town well in time during emergencies such as delivery for women, snake bites for kids and farmers, suicide cases, etc,’ he says. ‘Otherwise, we had to rush them to the nearby PHC [Primary Health Centre] in a cloth cradle. Many unlucky [people] took their last breath. We are thankful to the Kodaikanal Municipality for bringing in the Toll Plaza.’
Tourists, however, are concerned about the endless queue at the toll plaza during peak season (as there is only one counter open, mostly), which they say reduces the time they get to spend here. ‘We travelled all the way from Junagadh [Gujarat]. This is the first toll booth that took a lot of our time. They should seriously consider opening another counter for an efficient and faster movement of traffic. Also, efficient implementation of FASTag would be great,’ Sonali Jadhav told us.
The set-up might not seem overly strict, but sometimes, restrictions (possession of drugs, alcohol, weapons, or failure to carry important documents such as Aadhar card, license, registered vehicle papers, insurance, passport for foreigners, etc, can even send people back home.
Through this long lockdown of 2021, many non-residents have sought to enter the arch; reports of people trying to get an e-pass persisted through May and June, as they did last year. For everyone who misses the toll plaza, the images we present here will make you homesick and, hopefully, satisfy you till you visit next.