SC order banning highway liquor vends is wheelchair-bound man's biggest win

Chandigarh: 47-year-old Harman Sidhu, bound to a wheelchair, has just experienced his biggest moment of victory.

Why? Because Sidhu is the man behind the Supreme Court’s Friday order banning liquor outlets within 500 metres of all state and national highways, according to a report in the Indian Express.

Sidhu, who is almost 90 per cent disabled from spinal cord injuries and who has to pop painkillers every day, adopted the cause after he was grievously injured in a road 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 to Indian Express that they decided to drive off the road to see if they could spot the leopard again. Instead, their vehicle fell into a gorge.

Sidhu said that the incident changed him, not just physically but also as a person. While everyone survived the accident, Sidhu was the most injured even though he was in the back 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,” Indian Express quoted Sidhu as saying.

Sidhu established ArriveSafe, a road safety NGO in 2006. But the idea of campaigning against liquor vends came to him only in 2011, a year before he moved an application in the Punjab and Haryana High Court.

In March 2014, the High Court ordered that liquor vends should not be either visible or accessible from 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.

Since December 2016, when the Supreme Court first ordered that liquor vends be shut on all national and state highways, Sidhu said his phone had not stopped ringing.

While a few calls are of appreciation, and some from the media, many are threatening calls from people in the liquor business, Sidhu said.

Sidhu even claimed that one caller offered him Rs 25 crore. He also received 10 calls from diplomatic missions seeking to find out the average number of liquor 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 also dismissed the idea that people’s livelihoods would be jeopardised because the apex court banned serving of liquor even in restaurants close to national and state highways. “People don’t go to restaurants just to drink,” he was quoted as saying.

The wheelchair-bound Sidhu said that he had spent Rs 9 lakh on the case against liquor vends, adding that he travelled 50,000 kilometres across Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan in a custom-built vehicle gathering information on these vends.

But what next? 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. Sidhu then carried out a survey of bridges, and he found 100 bridges without railings. He filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, and the court will hear the matter on April 10.

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