For Harman Singh Sidhu, 26, a fresh grad in mechanical engineering from the Central Scientific Instrument Organisation, life looked settled.
Bound for Canada in just ten days’ time, he sauntered through a shopping mall making last minute purchases when his friends called.
“Won’t it be great if we could make a trip to Himachal to spot themleopard which we had spotted during a previous trip?” they asked.Harman was game.
On October 26, 1996 the four friends set out to reach Renuka Lake in good time. But destiny had other plans.
Along a bend, the car slipped and skidded into a gorge, 80 metres deep. Sidhu, sitting on the back seat, saw it fly and moments later he heard that dull thud and felt his hip giving up. He lapsed into unconsciousness.
His friends, both MBBS graduates, had miraculously survived the fall. They picked him up on their shoulders and clambered back on road. Later, he was rushed to a Chandigarh hospital, where a year later, doctors broke the worst news: “Sidhu, , but you won’t walk again.” “The darkness that enveloped me was overwhelming,” he said. “But that bitter truth changed my life forever as a person.”
Ninety per cent disabled, “forced to pop painkillers to feel alive” and bound to a wheelchair for life, Sidhu didn’t lose heart. He was an engineer. “The concept of websites had just come in and I put my heart into designing one for the doctor who had treated me,” he said.In 1998, his first essay into building websites and getting familiar with the world of internet was successful. He started engaging in online software development projects. Suddenly, life looked a tad promising.
The year 2006 was for him a game changer. He had aspired to deliver his message to the world on safe driving, travelling on a wheelchair! “That’s when I established ArriveSafe, an NGO dedicated to road safety.” And, almost immediately, he landed a bigger opportunity.
“In 2007, the first UN sponsored Road Safety Week was observed and a promotional was being shot in India. Somehow, they selected me as the protagonist. Suddenly, it seemed I was born to the task of making roads safe for people.”
That spark gave birth to ‘Crusader Sidhu.’A flurry of global invitations followed the promotional, which took Sidhu to the UN, the WHO, Russia, the US and all over Europe.
“That’s where I first noticed, that there were no pubs or liquor vends along the highways. Neither did highways have abrupt traffic intersections. I started gathering all information I could from the world over, which became the text for my first RTI to the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI).”
“I asked them, how many liquor vends existed along the Panipat-Jalandhar highway. They told me, there were 185! I immediately filed a PIL in the Punjab and Haryana High Court and later moved the Supreme Court. Though the case is still on, the SC on December 15, 2016 ordered pushback of liquor vends in the country by 500 metres off highways.”
After the ‘mini-victory’, there was no stopping Sidhu. “In Brazil, where traffic rules are very strict, they had told me that the policy planners follow a 5-point guideline. These were: framing a sound policy, creating safe roads, safe vehicles, creating the environment for safe road user behaviour and planning comprehensively for post-crash trauma care. I decided we must have these.”
It led to another round of litigation with the state administration. The Chandigarh Road Safety Manual he designed was adopted and Punjab Governor and Chandigarh Administrator VP Badnore released it on February 13 last to sensitise road users to adopt safe practices.
The manual he created discusses all challenges to driving — related to road conditions, weather, , visibility, nature of traffic et al.
“It is designed to serve as a one-stop source for soft skills required for safe driving,” said Sidhu.
After two accidents near Amritsar a few years ago, one of which involved a school bus full of students falling into a rivulet, Sidhu petitioned the state for construction of crash barriers on bridges in rural areas.
His actions saw the Rajasthan and Punjab governments putting barriers on most bridges.
Chetan Mittal, senior high court advocate, said: “You have to see him to believe his patience and perseverance. His actions have saved hundreds from fatal accidents.”