MUMBAI, 25 June-2014, DIVYA RAJAGOPAL/ET Bureau: In Modi sarkar, ministers and bureaucrats have it easy. They are only required to work 18 hours a day and keep their mouths shut when the media calls. Citizens have a tougher job, however.
They will not only be required to brave all the price increases that the Modi government is dishing out but will also be subjected to a government sponsored, taxpayer-funded ad blitz that will extol the virtues of marital fidelity in an attempt to combat the dreaded AIDS disease.
Health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan is an ear, nose, throat (ENT) specialist. So he sure knows how to pry out secrets of ill-health and treat patients. His diagnosis of India’s battle with AIDS so far is that its citizens’ moral fibre will have to strengthened if the disease has to be brought under control.
In an interview to The New York Times, the health minister has said that the thrust of the AIDS campaign should not be only on the use of condoms as it sends the wrong message that “you can have any kind of illicit sexual relationship, but as long as you’re using a condom, it’s fine.”
He added that the national campaign should also promote integrity of sexual relationship between husband and wife — “a part of Indian culture.” The emphasis on Indian culture is in keeping with the BJP’s emphasis on highlighting what it calls positive aspects of Indian culture to combat lifestyle problems caused by excessive or socalled reckless adoption of western culture.
Right-wing Hindu organisations have been know to use force to shut down pubs and rail against ‘indecent’ dressing among women. This is, however, the first time since the government formation in May that a high-ranking minister has publicly endorsed cultural attributes in the fight against a major disease.
Dr Harsh Vardhan, who was the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate in the Delhi 2013 assembly elections, has already issued orders to the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), which is responsible for running the HIV prevention programme in the country. It has been advised to tone down the emphasis on use of condoms and instead promote morals to tackle the disease.
“For high-risk groups like sex workers and men who have sex with men, we will continue the emphasis on condoms as morals won’t catch their attention,” V K Subburaj of NACO told ET.
“However, for the general public the minister has asked to stress on morals like being faithful, not indulging in pre-marital and extra-marital sex,” he added.
“The minister wants us to emphasise that just because condoms are available, one should not indulge in illegal sex,” he added. This culture vs condom comment by the health minister has not gone down too well with HIV activists who believe that such statements defeat the purpose of years of efforts in tackling the disease.
And it comes when the country is making headway in bringing down the number of HIV+ cases in India. Dr Harsh Vardhan remained unavailable on phone and an email sent to his official ID remained unanswered. NACO figures show that the rate of HIV in India has halved in the last decade.
However, what remains a concern is the resurgence of the deadly disease in low prevalence states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and Uttar Pradesh among others.
They further say that half-baked information based on morality does more harm than educating people about safer sex. Anjali Gopalan of Naz foundation, an organisation that works with HIV patients, said that the idea of Abstinence, Be faithful, Use a condom (ABC) approach has been around for long, but doesn’t always work.
“Just because condom is available, not everyone starts having sex,” she said. “Either ways you need to promote condom use.” “Sex happens in India irrespective of cultural taboos as we have found in our work, especially the helpline that ran for 13 years (1996-2009) and attended to over 60,000 calls,” said Prabha Nagaraja, Executive Director, TARSHI, an organisation that works on reproductive and sexual health issues.
She also pointed to a study done by the organisation, Population Council, in 2010 which showed that a large number of youth in both urban and rural India indulge in premarital sex and are often poorly educated about the risks associated with unprotected sex.
“So it is better to inform people about safe sex, including use of condoms instead of letting them rely on incomplete/misleading information,” she added.