| Sunil Dutt’s daughter Namrata at an AIDS walk in Mumbai on Wednesday. (Fotocorp)
New Delhi, Nov. 30: Ajay Panwar gave up a year of college in the hills of Mussoorie to walk the nation’s highways, past deserts, coastlines and forests.
He had a mission: to tell people how to keep away from HIV.
The young volleyball player is part of a group of 30-odd ‘walkers’ from different states who will tomorrow complete what is being dubbed the world’s longest walk for a social cause. In their AIDS Walk for Life, they have covered 6,813 km over the past one year. As they walked through cities and villages, they distributed 1.4 million leaflets and 975,000 condoms, and met over 700,000 people.
“I’ve lost a year of education, but it doesn’t matter at all,” said Panwar, who was a second-year economics and sociology student when he volunteered for the walk, gave an interview and was selected. “I’m happy to have educated people ' even if I can prevent one person from getting HIV, it would have been worth it.”
Recruited from towns across India, the walkers were trained as AIDS educators by Project Concern International, a non-government agency based in San Diego, California. They began their walk from Rajghat in New Delhi on December 1 last year and trekked through 13 states across north, west, south and eastern India.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi is expected to be among the speakers who will pay tribute to their achievement on World AIDS Day tomorrow.
“In a country where so many people know so little about HIV and AIDS, the walk has become a dramatic and effective way to spread awareness in regions where conventional campaigns had not worked,” said Henry Alderfer, the country director of Project Concern International.
Surveys have indicated that only about 50 per cent of the general population in India and two-thirds of sex workers know how to prevent HIV infection. Citing surveys, the comptroller and auditor general of India had last year said only one-fifth of the general population in India knew that HIV does not spread through mosquito bites or shared meals.
Mohan Singh, a 25-year-old from Almora in Uttaranchal and the leader of the walkers, was a computer operator with a government office in Dehra Dun when he volunteered.
“A few years ago, I was frightened to even talk to HIV-positive people. It was wrong. As I learnt about HIV and AIDS, I wanted to tell other people about prevention as well as misconceptions,” he said. “I saw this walk as a chance to do my bit for society.”
Singh said there were times when they had forests all around them. “But even then, we met with people to talk to, every single day.”