Harman Singh Sidhu was paralysed after a car accident in 1996
In 2012 he filed a PIL in Punjab and Haryana HC seeking closure of liquor vends on national and state highways
In 2014, the HC ordered that liquor vends should not be accessible or visible from highways
The road to victory hasn’t been easy for Harman Singh Sidhu, the doughty crusader whose PIL led to the SC order banning highway liquor vends last week
According to Times of India report,Even after 20 years, Harman Singh Sidhu, the man behind the PIL that resulted last week in the Supreme Court banning liquor sales on all state and national highways, clearly remembers the day he was almost killed.
On a cold October evening in 1996, Harman and three of his friends were driving home to Chandigarh from Renuka in Himachal. Hoping to see some wild animals at dusk, they took a country road. Suddenly, the friend who was driving lost control as the car skidded on the kutcha road and fell down a hill.
“We were all sober. I was sitting in the backseat and the car spun in the air many times before it landed 60-70ft down on its wheels. I can still see myself spinning with the car in slow motion, in great clarity and detail,” says Harman.
While his friends managed to get out, Harman couldn’t move. They took him to the PGI in Chandigarh. Harman had suffered a spinal injury, paralyzing him from neck down. He was bound to a wheelchair at the age of 26.
The next few years were a period of hopelessness, and Harman constantly asked himself the question: why me? “I got the answer one day while remembering how, when I was in the PGI emergency, the staff used to keep a record of patients and the cause of their injuries on a board. The maximum number came under the RTI — Road Traffic Injury — category, and I realised I was not alone.”
That realisation became a turning point for Harman. It gave him an aim to work for — road safety. He started holding awareness campaigns in Chandigarh and used the RTI law to get information on road accidents.
The figures are alarming. One person dies every four minutes on Indian roads — the highest in the world. As many as 1,46,133 people died last year. Several studies shown that alcohol is a major culprit. According to a WHO study, 30 to 35% accidents are due to drunken driving. Another study by Nimhans in Bengaluru found 44% of crash victims seeking medical treatment to be under the influence of alcohol. And a PGI Chandigarh study found that 85 (40%) out of 200 drivers with serious head injuries had alcohol in their blood.
Harman’s own survey in 2012 revealed another shocking number: there were 185 liquor vends on the 291km national highway between Panipat and Jalandhar. That’s one liquor vend every 1.5km. The same year, he filed a PIL in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, pleading that all liquor vends on national and state highways be closed down as they were a major cause of drunken driving resulting in fatal accidents. More than 1,000 vends were closed in Punjab and Haryana following the court order in 2014.
For Harman, the battle was far from over. Both Punjab and Haryana approached the SC and got a stay for state highways. The Punjab government also amended its excise policy in March this year, allowing liquor vends on national highways in an area having a population of 20,000 or more.
Harman says the vends are a prime source of income for state governments. “Punjab’s excise revenue target for 2016 is Rs 5,500 crore and it increases by 10% annually. The highways offer the highest number of customers who can be sold liquor at comparatively high rates as liquor doesn’t have a fixed rate. Naturally, governments don’t want to lose so much money,” he points out.
While the case was going on in the Supreme Court, Harman and his small team criss-crossed national highways falling in Punjab and Haryana to check if the court orders were being complied with. “We travelled for over 50,000km, checking for violations and wherever we found one, we immediately told the government concerned. In Ludhiana, we found 70 liquor vends within 32km of the national highway. Governments also got to know that there were people keeping an eye on violations,” says Harman.
The powerful liquor lobby was not happy. “I started getting threatening calls from unknown numbers and had to seek security. Fortunately, nothing really bad has happened to me till now,” says Harman.
Around two years ago, he started calling himself ‘the man in the wheelchair’. He explains why: “Those who were opposed to the liquor ban used to taunt me in the court by calling me names like ‘cycle wala’ or ‘rehri wala’. This was my way of telling them their name-calling won’t pull me down.”
Harman says Thursday’s SC order banning liquor sale on highways will save hundreds of lives every month. But his job is not yet over. He and his team will continue to travel the highways to ensure compliance of the SC order. “It will take some more time before liquor vends disappear from our highways and till then my fight will continue,” he says.
How a 4-year battle was won
2012: Sidhu files PIL in Punjab and Haryana HC seeking closure of liquor vends on national and state highways
2014: HC orders that “liquor vends should neither be accessible nor visible from highways”
2014: Punjab & Haryana challenge order in SC, get a stay on state highways.
2016: SC bans liquor sale on all highways
In 2012, there were 185 liquor vends on 291km of national highways from Panipat (Haryana) to Jalandhar (Punjab). That means 1 liquor vend every 1.5km. If someone drove at a speed of 90km/hr, he would see a liquor vend every one minute.