Finally, India’s HIV patients can hope against discrimination

By Kavita Bajeli-Datt, IANS,

New Delhi : India’s law ministry is soon expected to clear the draft of a bill that aims to prevent discrimination against HIV patients in a country that has one of the highest number of people afflicted with the disease. But activists and health officials say this has come after many delays and hiccups.

Support TwoCircles

K. Sujatha Rao, head of the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), which forms policy and implements programmes for the prevention and control of HIV and AIDS in the country, said by the end of this month the law ministry will send it to the cabinet for approval.

“We have lost a lot of time. I am hopeful that the bill will be tabled in the winter session of parliament,” she said.

India has 2.5 million HIV/AIDS patients who more often than not have to battle discrimination and social ostracism at various levels.

The bill aims to ensure equal rights for HIV positive people so that they don’t face discrimination at work, healthcare centres, in education and other settings.

“The bill has been pending with the law ministry for a long time. There were some clauses that they had doubts about and some clauses they had wanted to remove. But we sat with them and made them understand that these clauses were important,” Rao told IANS.

“We had to re-do everything, explain why we needed certain clauses. Eighty percent was rewritten again. By the end of this month, it will be sent to the cabinet,” Rao said.

At a press conference last week, Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said: “The HIV bill is with the law ministry.” This was the answer he had given to parliament in July this year as well.

Raman Chawla, an advocacy officer with the Laywers’ Collective that was involved in drafting the bill and campaigned for it, said it has been involved in many controversies since it was first drafted in 2005.

But the process for introduction of such a bill was discussed way back in 2000, he said.

“It was during an international meeting in New Delhi in 2000 that the process was first started. The bill was drafted after three years of extensive consultation that involved all stakeholders, including people living with HIV and AIDS, high risk groups, children, doctors, lawyers, trade unions and the government,” he added.

In 2005, the first draft was submitted to the health ministry. “But some changes were needed to be done, so the final draft was submitted to the health ministry in August 2006,” he added.

The bill was then sent to state governments and different ministries for their comments.

But problems cropped up when it went to the law ministry in August 2007. “They sat over it for one year. Finally, they came out with the first draft of the bill in 2008. But it had serious problems,” said Chawla, who has been involved with the whole process since 2006.

He said many important aspects – like cheaper treatment for people affected with HIV – were deleted and some draconian points were introduced like mandatory testing and isolation of patients.

There was a big protest by NGOs and people living with HIV on Dec 1, 2008, in front of the law ministry’s office that made it return to the original bill.

In January this year, the law ministry came out with the second draft, which removed all the controversial points. The law ministry then passed the final draft to NACO, which again had some problems with some of the clauses and therefore had to rewrite it again.

Finally, after seven months of intense deliberations, the law ministry is believed to have given the go-ahead.

“Now the talks are finally over. We hope that the law ministry sends it for cabinet approval and the bill sees the light of day,” Chawla told IANS.

The bill also provides for a safe working environment for healthcare workers, protection for risk reduction programmes, special provisions for women, children and young people. It recognizes the right of children and young people to access healthcare services and information in their own right.