The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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AIDS lessons for politicians

New Delhi, July 21: Indian politicians spent years denying the enormity of the risk posed by HIV/AIDS. Now they are reversing gears and trying to confront the problem head-on.

This weekend, the Parliamentary Forum on HIV/AIDS is hosting a two-day national conclave in Delhi to be attended by MPs, chief ministers, MLAs and panchayat members.

While Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will inaugurate the conclave, deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and leader of Opposition Sonia Gandhi, among other political bigwigs, will address the gathering.

There are an estimated 3.97 million people with HIV/AIDS in India. “For years we were in the denial mode. Now at least we are acknowledging the seriousness of the challenge,” said Kirit Somaiya, BJP MP and the forum’s joint convener. “The Prime Minister has assured there will be a joint parliamentary session on the issue,” said Congress MP Oscar Fernandes, another convener of the forum.

The forum was instituted almost nine months ago by former Union health and family welfare minister Shatrughan Sinha. It has roped in more than 250 MPs from almost every party.

“So far we have received confirmation from 10 chief ministers who will attend the conclave. And there will be over 500 MLAs and panchayat members,” Fernandes said.

The objective of the meeting is to sensitise people’s representatives to the illness that very often leaves patients without any social support given the stigma attached to it.

Till now, HIV/AIDS figured peripherally during question hour. There has never been a full-fledged discussion on the incurable infection. Fernandes said the conclave would throw up an action plan and encourage MPs to allocate funds from the MP Local Area Development Scheme to civil society organisations working on HIV/AIDS. The scheme grants each MP Rs 20 crore for the development of his or her constituency.

“The conclave should lay down a roadmap to generate full awareness on HIV/AIDS throughout the country by the end of 2007,” said Fernandes. He believes the participation of 30 lakh elected representatives at the grassroots level can substantively raise awareness about the disease. Another objective of the forum would be to legislate on HIV/AIDS in order to end discrimination against those afflicted with the virus.

According to figures from the National AIDS Control Organisation, Maharashtra and Manipur top the list of HIV/AIDS endemic states — each with a 1.75 per cent incidence of the disease. They are followed by Andhra Pradesh and Nagaland, each with 1.5 per cent prevalence, followed by Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, with 1.13 per cent each.

HIV Sentinel Surveillance records lowest level of awareness of the disease among rural women in Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Highest awareness levels were recorded in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Punjab and Manipur.

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