On 24 Oct 1996, a road accident left Harman Singh Sidhu paralysed. Three friends and Mr Sidhu were driving to Chandigarh from Himachal Pradesh. They were all sober. However, the driver lost control of the car, and it fell into a valley. His friends managed to escape, but Mr Sidhu suffered a spinal injury. He was paralysed from neck down and bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He was only 26.
Not one to give up on life, Mr Sidhu defeated the helplessness and depression he encountered following the accident and dedicated his life to the cause of road safety. Recently, his PIL led to the Supreme Court banning liquor vends on national and state highways.
His long crusade to make our highways safe and sober was despite his injury, despite the discouragement by the judicial procedures, despite threats by the liquor mafia. Mr Sidhu’s story is one that inspires each and every one of us.
The Logical Indian interviewed Mr Sidhu and spoke to him about his journey, inspirations, his message, and his plans.
You have done inspiring work and constantly strive to make our roads safer. What inspires you to continue to fight when many other victims of road mishaps don’t?
Human beings are the most selfish animals – and I am no different. At the end of the day, whatever we do is for our satisfaction and selfish goals. I have seen the world around me change in seconds. Trying to ensure no one else gets into a similar trap like I did keeps me going. This is my selfish goal, and I work to achieve that. The grit of my parents inspired me; they have taught me to take things head-on, come what may.
One person dies every four minutes on India’s roads — the highest in the world. Why is the frequency of accidents so high in India? Is it merely an effect of overpopulation and lack of proper awareness or is there more to it?
Overpopulation is a reason, but then look at China – their population is more than ours so were the number of road crashes and deaths. They have been able to control it because they took hard steps and in a time-bound manner.
Our decision makers have only one thing in mind: to keep the voters happy, so they don’t take strong decisions even if they are in the public interest.
It is the lack of awareness and accountability: not only among road users but more importantly among the officials (policy makers and those responsible for its implementation). They also lack sensitivity and do not value human life. This is why every State government wanted liquor shops on highways and argues hard for it. A State should give value to human life, not to revenue.
Examples of lack of sensitivity:
- Liquor vendors 30 cm from the edge of national highways in Himachal Pradesh, a hill State (as per information provided in RTI)
- Bridges without mandatory guard railings, school buses falling into the water bodies, unsafe road construction zones – but no accountability from engineers.
These officials are neither sensitive towards safety nor held accountable. We have once again moved the Supreme Court, so the officials of NHAI, PWD, and other such agencies are booked if someone dies because of potholes and if the standards are not followed making roads unsafe.
Arrive Safe has campaigned against bright, attractive advertisements on highways. How destructive can these be in enabling road accidents?
This particular PIL was aimed at making our highways sober. The aim was to get liquor vendors and the tempting advertisements of liquor brands removed. They distract the road users, and drivers are inclined to stop for a drink.
Coming to the legal aspect of the issue, your PIL led to the SC order to ban liquor vendors on highways. Could you tell us about your legal crusade?
I have faced repeated threats with warnings like “either withdraw the case” or “face the consequences”. We anticipated this from the liquor mafia. We used to get calls through VOIP numbers like +344 etc. or letters (hand copies) – we still do. We took it lightly initially but eventually informed the police. The HC provided two personal security officers 24×7 in December 2015.
It was a long legal litigation expedition: we had to file 13 cases in total (including contempt of court orders). We travelled around 55,000 km on highways collecting evidence (photos etc.) and presented them in HC.
Disappointments – The single judge of the HC remarked ‘it takes time and the file has gotten heavy.’ Disposed of as infructuous on 11-8-2016 (after two years without holding any respondent guilty of contempt even though plenty of documents placed on record). Excise officials were dancing over this order.
The opposite parties (excise officials & traders etc.) used to make personal remarks about my wheelchair life to dishearten me. They even used to remark, “We will tire you out with delays & financially bleed you”.
All in all, there were more than 100 hearings in High Court & Supreme Court. I travelled from Chandigarh to Delhi with my advocate Ravi Kamal Gupta for every hearing. The inaccessibility of courtrooms for the disabled was a problem, but the staff was cooperative.
Are there any laws in India which are counterproductive to road safety? What are the measures that the Parliament ought to take to ensure road safety?
Yes, the Excise Policies are a perfect example. On the one hand, low-cost awareness campaigns are held by NGOs. The police are expected to enforce these even with very less workforce. Therefore, there is easy availability of liquor on the highways.
Another example: There is no “public transport planning” when a new township is constructed. It is just linked to the existing road infrastructure. Subsequently, the traffic increases and roads become risky. The road is then further widened without any logic, forcing vulnerable road users (two-wheeler riders and cyclists, etc.) to share the road with fast moving vehicles.
The government should set up an autonomous agency on road safety that sends directions to all ministries and departments that are connected to road safety. Focus should be on qualitative data collection. Until we have the correct data, we cannot get the correct solution.
People tend to become demotivated by the continuous logjam in our judiciary. Do you have any advice for them?
This logjam is a sad reality. Instead of feeling demotivated one should act. Prepare meticulously, get correct data, and be ‘to-the-point’. A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step
What are your plans? Your PIL has succeeded; what will you fight for next?
About this PIL, things are not over yet. We will study the Excise Policies of all states to see if they are as per the SC orders. Secondly, we will keep an eye on the violations and report them. So, for the next two years, we would be keeping a watch on this.
How can The Logical Indian community contribute to your efforts?
We are very weak at fund collection – this entire fight has been funded from my pocket. If the community could teach us the art of fund collection, we could contribute more in the field of transportation & road safety.