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The land of much discrimination takes the right step in the right direction by passing the HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Bill, 2017

~By Sujit Bhar

Over the years, India has added another mode of discrimination to its already long list of biases on caste, creed, skin colour/race and religious lines. The latest to join the long line is the stigma suffered by patients of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection that can lead to the full-blown Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

The main source for such discrimination, though, is the same as the multitude of other discriminatory acts that plague this country: biased observer perception. “Racism is in our blood,” as a former Calcutta University professor of management Subrato Dutta put it. “Even if our daughter at home is born with dark skin, we discriminate against her. And God forbid if she gets AIDS, even if it was through an innocent blood transfusion at a hospital.”

Maybe it isn’t unique to India. The 1993 classic Hollywood film Philadelphia (starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington) depicted how HIV/AIDS was associated with homophobia and the patient was given short shrift. But in India things have changed little over the decades, necessitating the need for Parliament to pass the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) (Prevention and Control) Bill, 2017 on April 11. The bill not only plans prevention and treatment (with the Central and state governments paying for it) but is also aimed at guaranteeing equal rights in treatment, admission to educational institutions and in jobs.

Health Minister JP Nadda said this was a “historic” act and that the government “stands committed to free treatment of HIV patients.” He said the bill was “people-centric”, and how “before the coming of this Bill, these (HIV infected) people were not empowered”.

Key Provisions of the Bill

The legislation—it will take time for it to become law—covers a wide gamut of issues, such as employment, education, housing and health care, holding of public or private office, access to insurance and freedom of movement (see Box). Appended with that is a pre-emptive portion that talks about bans on unfair treatment of infected people at public facilities, such as shops, restaurants, hotels, public entertainment venues, public facilities and burial grounds.

The discrimination and apathy has grown to such an extent that AIDS is not even acknowledged in public. This correspondent has experienced the news of the death of a senior citizen, written off as cancer, while it was clearly due to AIDS-related complications, the infection having happened in a blood transfusion. Thus the record of AIDS-related deaths in India is totally unreliable.

How unreliable is data in India is evident from the following.

According to avert.org, the authoritative international NGO dedicated to informing and helping AIDS victims and administrations, Rs 21 lakh people were living with HIV infections in India as of 2015, with 86,000 new HIV infections and 68,000 reported deaths through AIDS-related complications.

It also said that while the prevalence of the disease was decreasing in India, the country still hosted the third largest HIV epidemic in the world, even though the prevalence was estimated at a mere 0.26 per cent.

However, a study in the same year, by the Global Burden of Disease (GBD), had indicated that new infections reported in the country were Rs 1.96 lakh. It also said that India had Rs 28 lakh people living with the infection.

What this shows is that all estimates are just that, and government efforts so far have been too little, too late. This Bill, at least, has the teeth to address tricky questions with straightforward answers. It deals with the social symptoms and ills, while letting the medical boards deal with the nitty-gritties of actual treatment.

Thankfully, the Bill has come with teeth. Minister Nadda has informed: “Whosoever does not adhere to the provisions of the Bill will be penalised. There would also be civil and criminal proceedings against them. Action would be also taken against those who come between the implementation of the provisions of the proposed Bill.”

The objectives of the bill have been acclaimed by Steve Kraus, Director, UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific. He has been reported to have said: “This is an important step forward for people living with and affected by HIV in India and around the world. This legislation begins to remove barriers and empowers people to challenge violations of their human rights.”

The Bill should be the right step in the right direction and though it has come a bit late, it has the potential to address special societal issues hitherto neglected.

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