The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Indian AIDS scenario is grim. And getting a lot of money from a tremendously rich man will help. In this sort of a situation, to get defensive about the nation’s HIV/AIDS statistics is not only monumentally ill-advised, but also in bad taste. Mr Shatrughan Sinha may have picked up a thing or two about the global AIDS crisis from Barcelona, but the red ribbon should be kept as far away as possible from red-tape, particularly of the government-of-India variety. Mr Bill Gates has channelled some of his wealth towards the prevention of HIV/AIDS in India and the care of those living with the virus. He would naturally want to monitor how the funds are being used. He will have to work out — in consultation with those who really know about these things in India — how best to combine nongovernmental organizations, health department bureaucrats, medical authorities and management specialists in making up the foundation in India. The government’s role in this process should be to facilitate matters and to try as hard as possible to not let its ignorance, prejudices and inefficiency hinder the operations.

Mr Gates has targetted truckdrivers, migrant labourers and their sexual partners in his project. This focus must not, however, fall into the standard and mistaken equation of AIDS-related ignorance with poverty and illiteracy. The urban respectable classes are equally ignorant, prejudiced, hypocritical and irresponsible when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases. Also, the great Indian denial of the relationship between HIV/AIDS and the sexual behaviour of men who have sex with men will have to be overcome in order to make proper use of the money. And this, without the prejudice and violence usually directed towards these men, and towards the NGOs and activists who work with them. Mr Gates is rightly concerned about the inhuman attitudes towards those infected with the virus. But this stigma is inseparable from other social taboos in India, kept up by ordinary people as well as governmental bodies. Besides, the funds should be administered only by those who can handle large sums of money without making a mess of it. It would be wise to keep number-crunching bureaucrats and ministers as far away from all this as possible.

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