‘Availability of liquor near main roads only invites death’

Harman Sidhu is a Chandigarh-based leading road safety expert who fought a five-year battle against liquor vends being operated in the vicinity of national and state highways across the country.

Written by Saurabh Prashar | Chandigarh | Published: March 20, 2017 8:29:51 am
national highway liquor ban, state highway liquor ban, chandigarh administration, chandigarh rename highway roads, chandigarh district roads, harman singh sidhu, road safety ngo chandigarh Harman Singh Sidhu, who runs an NGO for road safety in Sector 21A, Chandigarh. (Kanav Sharma)

Why did you decide to wage a war against liquor vends being located near national highways and state highways?

I have been working in the field of road safety for more than a decade. I have studied a number of patterns of road accidents and also managed to find solutions to some of the patterns. But my attention towards the liquor vends was especially attracted when I came to know about certain studies establishing that most accidents on national and state highways occur due to drink driving. I did my groundwork and found many loopholes on the part of states, which have no checks on the easy availability of liquor near highways.

What is your take on the recent decision of the Chandigarh administration to notify state highways into major district roads to dodge the liquor ban?

I feel betrayed. I take up the matter to the apex court, taking so many risks, and the apex court passes strict guidelines against the vends located on national highways. And here, my own city sets a modus operandi teaching other states how to dodge the ban and operate business as usual. The Chandigarh administration is in the process of setting a wrong precedent and showing the way to other states how to avoid the ban as well. The officers who changed the earlier notification are the same people who always applaud my efforts whenever I meet them outside their offices.

Why are governments, especially the Chandigarh administration, trying to save liquor vends? Do you think this is only to save the revenue being earned through the liquor policy?

There is a misconception. My battle does not say destroy the vends. My argument is only that the availability of liquor near main roads including national and state highways only invites death. The order of the apex court say the vends cannot be located in 500 metres vicinity of highways and these will not be visible from the highways. The apex court’s orders do not say governments should demolish all the vends and shut the liquor policies.

What now that Chandigarh administration has managed to save so many vends, which are located nearby state highways which have been renamed as district roads?

First of all, this move of the Chandigarh administration is very weak. How can they suddenly change around a 10-year old notification? However, all options are available. I have full faith in the judiciary. The Chandigarh administration is only misleading the court and has also landed itself in serious trouble.

Any moment when you feel discouraged and think about giving up your battle against the system which allows operation of vends on highways?

Seriously, I was hurt when people made allegations against me of being a part of a particular lobby, which failed to get liquor vends adjoining the highways and working on the behest of particular lobby. But it happens to everyone who starts with a noble cause, and if your conviction is honest, later on people who once leveled allegations against you will accept your works.

Have you received any threats from organised liquor mafia, or any other agencies which fear that you are harming them?

Receiving threatening letters, calls, messages from unknown numbers and numbers showing the codes of foreign countries has become a routine affair in the last four years. But I was not attacked physically by anyone, nor has someone tried to hit me directly. About threatening letters, messages, etc., several complaints were filed with Chandigarh police and investigation in most of the complaints has been closed.

How did you meet the road accident which confined you to a wheel-chair?

It dates back to October 1996 when I was returning from Renuka lake in Sirmaur district of Himachal with three other friends. I still remember we were near a place named Chandni when our car skidded and tumbled down the hill. I was in the backseat and the car fell around 70 feet downhill. I suffered a severe spinal injury in the accident that paralyzed me from the neck down.

Are you a teetotaler?

No, I take drinks, but only occasionally. But still I will say it is a bad habit. Avoid it. I wish I had been drunk when I met the tragic road accident, so I could tell the people what drink driving could cause you.

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