India’s National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, began the process to make a law aimed at providing dignified life and right to treatment to the HIV-AIDS affected in 2002 and its advisory board submitted a draft of the bill in 2006.
A long time has passed since then and though we can pat our back on the data set establishing smooth progress India has made in minimizing spread of HIV-AIDS, the biggest health epidemic the world is cursed to live with, the main bottleneck remains – of providing life-saving treatment to the majority of HIV-AIDS infected people – who exist on the margins of our societies – sex workers, gay, transgenders, injecting drug users, highway truck drivers and other people living on the periphery of the society.
Most of them either do not speak for the fear of stigma HIV-AIDS brings, resulting in boycott by the family or society, or they remain cursed to die because they cannot access the treatment.
For past some years, India has had almost the same number of HIV infected people – around 2 million because the Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) has been able to prevent the further spread. Since 2007, India has seen AIDS death cases declining by 55% while new infections have come down by 66% since 2000.
But what about those already affected with this deadly medical condition that kills the immune system? Should we leave them to die?
ART is an expensive treatment regime – and majority of those affected cannot afford it. Also, the social ostracisation that HIV-AIDS infection brings prevents people to go for treatment from other sources like open counters or chemist shops because it compromises confidentiality – a must for every HIV-AIDS regulatory ecosystem across the world.
India’s National AIDS Control Organization (NACO), established in 1992, has done an impressive work in containing the HIV-AIDS epidemic numbers tell us. Its clinics and ART distribution centres function well and the NACO network ensures efficient implementation to maintain confidentiality.
But what about those who make policies that makes institutions like NACO run? The need for confidentiality, cost constraints and social stigma make HIV-AIDS treatment a domain of the government. It needs to be legally binding. That’s why we need a law to take on HIV-AIDS in India. And a free ART with full confidentiality has to be at its core.
But the bill, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Prevention and Control) Bill, 2014, that the governments intends to pass in this session of the Parliament, compromises on this core requirement.
When the NDA government had revived the 2014 UPA bill on HIV-AIDS in July this year, it was widely expected that soon the right to HIV-AIDS treatment will be legally binding in India. But the final version of the bill shows that the government has retracted on this promise. The amended version of the bill says, “The measures to be taken by the Central Government or the State Government under section 13 shall include the measures for providing, as far as possible, Anti-retroviral Therapy and Opportunistic Infection Management to people living with HIV or AIDS.”
‘As far as possible’ means government may take measures to provide ART or may not – depending on the definitions that go behind its decisions. It will not be legally binding. In this form, the bill will prove just a half-baked act, delaying India’s fight against HIV-AIDS.
Also, India slashed its national budget for HIV-AIDS by Rs. 400 crore this year. Last year, a Reuters report said that the “government’s anti-AIDS programme was in trouble for more than a year, with bureaucratic delays and a funding crunch resulting in shortages of condoms and drugs”.
There are millions who are still outside the free ART regime. And they are dying a slow death each passing year. Experts and activists are questioning the government intent with this budget-cut and a diluted version of the bill that stops short to make ART or HIV-AIDS treatment a right for the infected persons. If the government proactively reaches out to every infected person, including those from the marginalised communities, promising them free ART and confidentiality, we will be able to curb the HIV-AIDS menace on a much faster scale.