My Encounter with HIV/AIDS

Sudhir Varma IAS


The year 1991 began on an academically fruitful note. I received an invitation from the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, UK to spend six weeks on doing research on the issues concerning the strengthening of the role of women representatives at the Panchayati raj level in India. While I was working at the IDS library, my wife rang me one day from Jaipur that I had been sponsored by the Ford Foundation, on a gender training workshop in May 1991 at Bergen, Norway.

So, when I returned in February from UK, I started preparing for the Bergen workshop. I was asked to speak on the Women’s Development Programme, commonly known as the Saathin programme of Rajasthan. As it was my first exposure to an international workshop, I was a little shaky when we reached Bergen and found an elite group of international experts as participants. However, after a couple of days at the Workshop, I sensed that my views on Gender and Development had impressed the Director of the UNDP’s gender and development division, Ms. Elizabeth Reid. After my return to India, I got busy with my work in the government.


One day while I was in a meeting, my peon brought me a fax. I was surprised that it was from UNDP, New York office and the sender was Ms. Elizabeth Reid. The fax was not from the Gender and Development division but from the HIV/AIDS and Development Division. I was being invited for a three-week workshop on HIV/AIDS and Development at Mombasa, Kenya.


I had heard of HIV/AIDS but did not know much about it. Most of my knowledge was from the Time and Newsweek magazines which I used to get from the Secretariat library. I was amazed as to why I was picked up – the only person from India and one who had never worked in the health sector. I accepted the invitation because the stories of Tarzan were my favorite in childhood. Africa and its jungle safaris had always attracted me. My first reaction was that I was getting a free holiday to go on an African Safari.


However, it was necessary for me to get some knowledge about HIV/AIDS in India so that I would not appear to be a total ignoramus in front of an international group of trainers. My first attempt to get information from the state government failed because except for the fact that an AIDS patient was found in Pushkar in 1986, there was hardly any information. HIV/AIDS was not on the agenda of the department of Medical and Health. Then I went to Delhi and met Secretary, Ministry of Health who told me to meet the Director of the HIV division in the Ministry. I was Secretary, Livestock Development and having acquired a PhD, used to affix Dr in my name. When he saw my card, he thought I was a veterinarian and refused to meet me and through his chaprasi, conveyed to me that cattle never get HIV. When I persisted, he saw me. In the meanwhile, he had received a message also from the Secretary’s office. He had almost no literature and told me that HIV was never going to be a concern, except for the metros, in India, He also gave me a statement made by the then Union Minister of Health in the Parliament that the strong cultural forces in India would never allow HIV to become a serious problem. He told me that Rajasthan was so poor and backward that it would never face the HIV epidemic.


I landed at Mombasa for an adventurous stay in Africa. It was after the introductory session, when I felt that something was amiss. While everybody else was recounting the problems, which were being faced by them in their countries, I introduced myself and emphatically told the group that India was never going to get into a serious problem with HIV because we were a very value-conscious, highly religious, monogamous and conservative people. There was an eerie silence in the room. In the following days my attitude must have been very casual as I raised some eyebrows of the trainers, particularly Elizabeth Reid who asked me whether I seriously felt that HIV need not be considered as a serious problem for India. When I told her that I had the minister’s statement in Parliament to support me, she appeared to be disturbed.


As the training continued and the epidemic started unfolding in the classes, I found that all those reasons why the epidemic was engulfing Africa and some parts of South Asia were present in India and even in Rajasthan. I suddenly realized that I might have been totally wrong in my assumption and that India should also wake up. By the time the workshop ended my attitude towards the HIV epidemic had changed entirely. I had heard life stories of many young men and women who had done no wrong but had become HIV infected and were dying. A couple of days before the workshop ended, I found that nearly 1/3rd of the participants were HIV-infected, a fact which never came out earlier. They never appeared to be like those emaciated skeletal men and women whose photographs were being regularly splashed in western journals. They had pathetic stories of hate and discrimination to tell. I had become a total convert. Elizabeth Reid was very happy that she had sensitized a senior Indian bureaucrat! I was in a hurry to return to India and to do my bit on the epidemic.


The first thing I did on return was to call my old Saathins of the WDP and hammered into them why a woman needed to be protected against HIV. They all went home highly enthusiastic, ready to ask their husbands who used to return home after months of labour at construction sites in towns. After three months, I again called a workshop of the same Sathins and asked them about their experiences. I was eager to hear success stories from them as I had always heard but most of them told me that they were beaten up by their husbands when they raised the issue of a condom.


There were pathetic stories in Rajasthan. One day a lady lecturer came to me to help her in getting a transfer to the district headquarters as she needed the antiretroviral treatment, which was available only at the district headquarters. She recounted her story to me. She never had any sexual relation with any other man than her husband, who was HIV negative. It was a blood transfusion in a big hospital in Chandigarh. Her husband had sent her back to her parents in Punjab. And was not even willing to go and buy medicines for his wife for fear of facing embarrassment at the local medicine shop. He was not willing to spend a paisa on her treatment. Her parents sold their land in Punjab and gave the money to her for treatment. Her two grown up sons also stopped talking to her and went away to live with their father. Looking to her pathetic condition a male colleague, started helping her in getting drugs and other necessary things. When the husband and the sons came to know about this colleague, they started alleging that she was a woman of bad character.


The other incident is about a pregnant beggar whose husband had died of AIDS in Mumbai. She had come to Jodhpur by train. When her labour pains started, she went to a zanana hospital. When her HIV status was discovered, the hospital just threw her out. We brought her to Jaipur and admitted her to the government women’s hospital. Again, no lady doctor or paramedical staff was willing to deliver her child. We were fortunate that one lady doctor, who had been working with her husband on HIV/AIDS for a long time, was there. She trained the other doctors and paramedical staff on the universal precautions. The woman delivered a healthy young boy. All of us heaved a sigh of relief. However, the hospital was not willing to keep her beyond the minimum requirement. I tried to shift her to a local woman’s home but the concerned department was not willing. They feared that all other inmates would also catch the infection! I was able to manage a small room. By then her new born son required vaccination. He was taken to the children’s hospital but the compounder refused to touch him and vaccinate him. It was only under the threat of suspension from government service that he agreed. His hands were shaking when he was vaccinating the child! All was well till one day when some official from the Rajasthan State AIDS Control Society descended on her room and plastered its walls with the HIV/AIDS prevention posters. As there were no inhabited houses around, the damage was controlled. I provided her with some money to sell items like sindoor, bangles, ribbons etc. in her neighborhood to make some money. I also arranged a handcart for her to go around with the merchandize. She was a good sales woman and soon started making money.


Last, I also recall an incident in Bangalore. I was visiting a hospice when one of the patients, who was near his death implored me to save his life because I was a powerful IAS officer and could do anything!





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