19th July 2013, Mumbai: Over 300 people from the Mumbai AIDS Forum (MAF) protested outside the Mumbai District AIDS Control Society (MDACS) premises in Wadala, calling for the HIV/AIDS Bill to be introduced in the Rajya Sabha in the upcoming monsoon session.
The HIV/AIDS Bill was drafted by Lawyers Collective with extensive consultations with various stakeholders across the country. It was submitted to the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) in 2006, and has ever since shuttled between the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and the Ministry of Law & Justice with little progress. While the Bill has been pending for the past 7 years, social discrimination and denial of treatment and medicines to persons living with HIV (PLHIVs) continues unabated. The Bill encapsulates India’s international and domestic constitutional obligations in protecting the rights of people living with HIV. Experience from across the world has shown that respecting and protecting the rights of people living with HIV is the most effective way of dealing with the HIV epidemic. For further information on the provisions of the HIV/AIDS Bill 2007 and the drafting process see: http://www.lawyerscollective.
The protesters then marched towards the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sangrahalaya Hall at Dadar for a press-briefing. At the MMGS Hall, people living with HIV, including those from the Network in Thane for People Living with HIV (NTP+) and activists narrated testimonies of the daily stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV and most at risk populations in all spheres of life including discrimination in employment settings, access to medicines as well as in family settings. The testimonies highlighted, in no uncertain terms, the urgency required in having the Bill becoming law.
The Panel Speakers then elaborated the personal testimonies by highlighting the specific provisions of the HIV Bill.
Vikas Kurne of Saathi spoke elaborately on the denial of treatment and medicines in private hospitals and the often reported malpractice of compulsory testing of pregnant women. He emphasized that the HIV Bill contained detailed provisions on mandating State governments to provide access to treatment, while also requiring informed consent of persons to be tested for HIV with adequate counseling.
Anil/Kalyani of Sanjeevani highlighted the lack of access to second-line and third-line anti retroviral therapy drugs to PLHIVs. While all State ART-centres provide first-line drugs for free, only a handful of ART centres provide second-line drugs to PLHIVs, which, he said, is tantamount to denial of the fundamental right to health. The HIV Bill seeks to ensure access to medicines throughout the treatment process by mandating the Central Government to provide, free of cost, HIV related treatment, including for co-infections, preventive measures, such as those for harm reduction as well as counselling and testing services, based on the right to health principles of availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality.
Pramod Nigudkar of Committed Communities for Development Trust highlighted issues of discrimination and deprivation faced by children living-with or affected-by HIV. Often children living with HIV are left orphaned, with the parents passing away of HIV related illness. He mentioned that the HIV Bill, if passed, would allow for minor siblings of a younger minor to protect his person and property for children deprived of parental care. The Bill also seeks to reduce the age of consent from 18 to 16 years of age, thus allowing mature adolescents the right to give informed consent for one’s HIV test or treatment.
Ashok Row Kavi of Humsafar Trust discussed the urgent need for tabling the HIV Bill as it decriminalises several acts particularly employed by Targeted Interventions in dealing with vulnerable groups, such as distribution of contraception to sex-workers and clean-needles to IDUs, activities which are otherwise criminalised. He stated that these provisions of the HIV Bill are particularly important as they affect the most-at-risk groups, and if allowed, would allow for a faster prevention and protection campaign against HIV.
Anand Grover of Lawyers Collective expressed hope that the government would demonstrate political-will in passing the Bill as expeditiously as possible as the HIV Bill was drafted after elaborate research and public consultations with all stakeholders from across India. He highlighted that the law would mandate States to provide access to treatment including all multiple-line drugs. In cases of denial of treatment or discrimination, PLHIVs can approach the Health Ombudsman that is sought to be constituted under the law, which would ensure faster grievance-addressal mechanism. He encouraged the PLHIV networks and activists to sustain their efforts to direct the government’s attention towards tabling the HIV Bill in the Rajya Sabha during the Monsoon Session.