He has to change his posture every few minutes, pop painkillers through the day. Declared almost 90 per cent disabled from grievous spinal injuries, 47-year old Harman Sidhu, confined to a wheelchair for more than two decades, is the man whose campaign led to the Supreme Court order shutting down liquor shops and bars within 500 metres of highways across the country. For Sidhu, it is a victory for a cause he adopted after his own disabling accident in 1996. On October 24 that year, he was in a car with two friends, returning to Chandigarh from a trip in Himachal Pradesh. Sidhu was in the rear seat. On an earlier trip, they had spotted a leopard on the road in Chandni in Sirmaur district. Sidhu said they decided to drive off the road to see if they could spot the leopard again. Their vehicle fell into a gorge instead.
That incident, he said, changed him. Not just physically, but also as a person. “Until then, I was just another 26-year-old. I liked driving at high speed, be it a car, scooter or bike. I imagined I was the king of the road. But everything changed after the accident. We survived but I received the maximum injuries though I was on the rear seat.”
“During my two-year long treatment at PGI, I observed that most injured persons being brought to the emergency section were in the road traffic injury category. That was when I decided to do something constructive.”
He formed ArriveSafe, a road safety NGO, in 2006.
“The idea about campaigning against liquor vends adjoining highways came to me five years ago, a year before I actually moved an application in the Punjab and Haryana High Court in October 2012. I did lot of ground work, went through excise policies of different states, read the pattern of road accidents on highways and decided to take the matter to court,” Sidhu said.
In March 2014, the High Court ordered that liquor vends should not be either visible or accessible from the national and state highways. Within six days, Punjab and Haryana governments went to the Supreme Court with the plea that liquor vends be allowed on state highways, offering to shut them down on national highways.
The court named Sidhu a respondent in the case. Since December last, when the Supreme Court ruled that no liquor vend will be allowed within 500 metres of a state or national highway, his two cellphones have not stopped ringing.
“People start calling from early morning. The calls don’t stop until late at night. There are a few calls of appreciation, some media queries and mostly threatening calls from people in the liquor business,” said Sidhu, a resident of Sector 21 in Chandigarh. One caller, Sidhu said, even offered him Rs 25 crore. He received 10 calls when this reporter met him. Two calls were purportedly from diplomatic missions, seeking to find out the average number of vends on highways.
Sidhu told one of the callers that on the 291-km stretch from Panipat to Jalandhar, there were 185 liquor vends. This information, he said, was given to him by the NHAI in response to an RTI query.
Sidhu said it was wrong to say that the Supreme Court order would jeopardise people’s livelihood. “People don’t go to restaurants just to drink,” he said.
The son of a retired librarian of a government college, Sidhu said he and his lawyer, Ravi Kamal Gupta, bore all the expenses of the four-year legal battle, first in the High Court, and later in the Supreme Court.
“We have spent approximately around Rs 9 lakh, including all expenses of my travel to Delhi, 22 times in a single month,” said Sidhu, adding he had travelled 50,000 km across Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan in a custom-built vehicle collecting information for his legal battle. Sidhu makes a living from website designing and is currently attached to several government and private institutions in Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh. His elder brother, Prit Pal Singh Sidhu, is a Captain with the Indian Army. His twin sister, Harpreet Kaur, lives in Canada. Sidhu said he was quite sure that the apex court’s order would be implemented strictly by state governments. “Í will be monitoring it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sidhu has already launched his next campaign. Last September, a school bus plunged into a drain in a village 35 km from Amritsar. Seven children were killed and 20 had serious injuries. The bus was being driven at high speed, and the bridge over the drain did not have railings. The accident prompted Sidhu to carry out a survey of bridges, and he found 100 bridges without railings. He filed a PIL in the Supreme Court. The next date is April 10.