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Govt. apathy adds to a losing battle against AIDS

By Mandira Nayar

NEW DELHI, DEC. 16. Sitting in her dingy, cramped room on G.B. Road in the Capital's red light district, AIDS is just another battle Saraswati (name changed), a sex-worker, is bound to lose. With the Delhi AIDS Control Society falling short of condoms for months or supplying substandard condoms to a high-risk group of about 4,000 women, she really stands little chance against the disease.

India might be on the brink of a major AIDS epidemic, but the Government seems unwilling to read the writing on the wall. "This is a problem that we have been facing for more than one year now. We have either not been supplied condoms or they have been substandard. Earlier women in the area did not use condoms. However, now that we have started using them, we have been supplied useless ones. They crumple when used and the customers refuse to use them. It is incredibly uncomfortable for us too," complains Saraswati.

Ironically, there is a bright yellow poster of the Delhi AIDS Control Society's "mela" visible from her barred window. However, the poster fluttering in the wind seems to be the only sign of the Delhi Government's efforts towards AIDS control in the area.

While Delhi has been classified as one of the "Low Prevalence" States by the National Sentinel Surveillance 2002, the number of cases in Delhi has increased from 359 in December 1999 to 862 in October 2003.

But despite the increase in the number of cases as well as the vulnerability of the high-risk groups to this dreaded disease, nothing concrete has been done to address the problem of AIDS by the Delhi Government.

"We have tried to tell the authorities about this problem, but nothing has been done. We were first told to pay 50 per cent of costs for condoms that are meant to be distributed free. We refused to do so. We even went to High Court about the shortage of condoms, however, nothing has been done," rues Khairati Lal Bhola, the untiring president of Bhartiya Patita Uddhar Sabha, a non-government organisation that has been working in the area for more than ten years.

Interestingly enough, although the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on Delhi for 2002-2003 also highlighted the failure of the Delhi AIDS Control Society, no steps have been taken to remedy the situation yet. The CAG Report points out that the supply of condoms fell short during 1998-99 to 2002-2003.

In a survey conducted by ORG Centre for Social Research in 2002, the report notes that only 23.4 per cent non-brothel based commercial sex workers reported consistent use of condoms with non-paying partners. The Society has also been able to establish only one clinic for Sexually Transmitted Diseases against the target of 30 during the last five years according to the report.

Of a total of 11 STD clinics in existence, only one reported adequate supply of the required medicine. It also took three years to identify the first batch of eight NGOs for priority-targeted interventions for groups at high risk.

Worried about the disastrous consequences of not taking the spread of the disease among high risk groups in the city seriously enough, Mr. Bhola has even written to the Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare, A. Ramadoss, highlighting the lack of condoms in the red-light area. "There are about 23 lakh prostitutes with 54 lakh children living in 1,100 redlight areas in the country. The Central Government must ask the State Governments to maintain supply of deluxe condoms in the red light areas free of cost," he states in his letter. However, judging by time the Delhi Government is taking to get its act together, it might be too late.

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