4 years long battle of Harman Singh Sidhu – The crusader whose PIL banned liquor sale on Indian highways

harman singh sidhu

A terrible road accident paralyzed Harman Singh Sidhu and bound him to a wheelchair at the age of 26. It’s been 20 years, but the memories of that traumatic night still shiver Harman, the man behind the PIL (Public Interest Litigation), upon which Supreme Court banned liquor sale on all state and national highways.

It was a cold October evening of 1996, when Harman was travelling to home in Chandigarh from Renuka in Himachal along with three other friends. Suddenly his friend who was driving the car lost control and their car skidded on the kutcha road and fell down a hill. While his friends managed to get out, Harman couldn’t move. He had suffered a spinal injury, that made him paralyzed from the neck down.

We were all sober. I was sitting in the back seat 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.

For the next few years, Harman lived a life filled with hopelessness. But he realized that he was not the single victim of road accident, after recalling how the staff used to keep a record of patients and the cause of their injuries on a board, when he was in the PGI emergency. This realization gave him a cause to work for – road safety. Harman started holding awareness campaigns in Chandigarh and used the RTI law to get information on road accidents.

One person dies every four minutes on Indian roads, which is the highest in the world. 30 to 35% accidents are due to drunken driving, as per a WHO report. 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. In 2012, Harman found out that there were 185 liquor vends on the 291km national highway between Panipat and Jalandhar; that’s one liquor shop every 1.5km.

Harman Singh Sidhu filed a PIL in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, appealing that all liquor shops on national and state highways should be closed down as they were a major cause of drunken driving resulting in fatal accidents. After a court order in 2014, more than 1,000 liquor shops were closed in Punjab and Haryana.

The battle was still not over for Harman Singh Sidhu. Both Punjab and Haryana approached Supreme Court and got a stay for state highways, since these liquor shops are a prime source of income for the state governments.

We traveled for over 50,000 km, checking for violations and wherever we found one, we immediately told the government concerned. In Ludhiana, we found 70 liquor vends within 32 km of the national highway. Governments also got to know that there were people keeping an eye on violations, says Harman. I started getting threatening calls from unknown numbers and had to seek security. Fortunately, nothing really bad has happened to me till now, Harman added.

Finally, in December 2016, the Supreme Court of India ordered a ban on all liquor shops on the national as well as state highways across the country and made it clear that the licenses of existing shops will not be renewed after 31 March 2017. After winning a 4-year long battle, delighted Harman Singh Sidhu says that the Supreme Court’s order banning liquor sale on highways will save hundreds of lives every month. However, this is not the end of his road safety campaign. Along with his team, Harman Singh Sidhu will travel along the highways to ensure the compliance of the Supreme Court’s order.

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