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NGO anger at ‘common male’ Balbir Pasha

Mumbai, Dec. 31: The success of a high-profile anti-AIDS campaign, whose popularity inspired the title of a soft-porn film, has sparked a row among activists.

The People’s Health Organisation, an NGO working on AIDS, wants the “Balbir Pasha” series of advertisements banned for being “anti-woman” and spreading “misinformation”.

The ad campaign started a month ago with the teaser, “Balbir Pasha ko AIDS hoga kya' (Will Balbir Pasha get AIDS')”, screaming from numerous hoardings. While everyone was curious about this unusual name, Balbir Pasha became a celebrity, appearing on FM and television and in newspapers.

Population Services International, the NGO behind the campaign, said Pasha was meant to represent the common Indian male.

Several AIDS activists, however, believe Pasha is not good for public health and have issued statements reaffirming their feeling. Prominent among them is Dr I.S. Gilada of People’s Health Organisation.

After the teaser, the second phase of the campaign went: “Balbir Pasha sharab ke nashe mein condom lagana bhool jata hoga. Ek baar bhi condom na lagaane se AIDS ho sakta hai! (Balbir Pasha may have forgotten to use a condom under the influence of alcohol. You can get AIDS if you don’t use the condom only once.)”

The current ad reads: “Balbir Pasha ki regular sirf Manjula hai; par Manjula ke kai regular hai. (Manjula is Balbir Pasha’s only partner, but Manjula has many regulars).”

The ads worked. “We were inundated with phone calls after the campaign. Every caller would start off with Balbir Pasha but go on to talk about his or her specific problem,” says Shilpa Merchant of Population Services International.

BJP MP Kirit Somaiya, himself an AIDS activist, jumped on the Balbir Pasha bandwagon, putting up banners saying: “Aao milkar hath bantaye; Balbir Pasha ko AIDS se bachayen. (Let’s give a hand to save Balbir Pasha from AIDS).” But Gilada finds the campaign objectionable.

“The ads portray the woman as the source of the infection, whereas it’s men who need more attention, as they are the ones visiting red-light areas as well as cohabiting with their wives,” Gilada says, adding that it perpetrates a number of myths.

“It suggests that AIDS is transmitted only from woman to man and that AIDS is transmitted only through sex.

“The ads also imply that the infected person gets AIDS directly, whereas you are first infected with HIV,” Gilada says. “They may also suggest that only those consuming alcohol can get AIDS by forgetting to use condoms, whereas there are many ways not related to alcohol that one can contract AIDS.”

He gives proof of the campaign’s popularity. “One Reshma Enterprise has put up posters of the film, Balbir Pasha ko AIDS ho gaya... Kaise', produced by Purushottam and directed by Prem Sagar,” he says. The campaign becomes more unacceptable because of its wide appeal, he adds.

Ashok Row Kavi of Humsafar, an outfit that works on male sexuality and AIDS, also finds the campaign sending out wrong signals.

“A huge number of HIV-affected people are male homosexuals. This kind of campaign does not address the problem at all,” says Kavi.

Merchant agrees that the issue of male homosexuals is an important one “but one can’t address all the problems with one campaign”.

“We wanted to generate interest in the issue of AIDS and we have been very successful to that end. If there is a criticism about using situations like Balbir Pasha getting drunk or going to a ‘regular’ woman, one must keep in mind that we are talking about the most general situations. We have spoken to a number of men who would use a condom, but forgot because they were drunk,” she said.

“It’s the same about the phrase ‘regular’. We want to warn men that they may be going to the same person in a red-light area, but she may have many customers,” Merchant added.

But not everyone is convinced. Geeta Kumana of Aanchal, an NGO working with lesbians, feels the ads are insensitive towards women. “I first thought the ads were a joke, because the AIDS scenario in actuality is so frightening. Why did it take so long for any NGO to react'” she asked.

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