History repeats itself, it seems the farce does too. In 2003, then health minister (now external affairs minister) Sushma Swaraj decided that going with condom campaigns to deal with the AIDS epidemic wasn’t the right approach. So national broadcaster Doordarshan, which had in collaboration with the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) been carrying out a concerted AIDS awareness campaign, stopped airing the awareness capsules targeted at the over 60 million rural and small-town viewers.
It was as if Sushma decided, one fine day, that condoms weren’t working as a mitigation tool against AIDS. The government even had set responses to the outcry: can we get rid of AIDS entirely if we start using condoms? What about other modes of transmission like the use of needles, blood transfusion, and so on? How is the condom going to prevent that? Why should the minister clarify her position on this?
The southern states were the worst affected at the time, besides pockets in the Northeast and Maharashtra. NACO’s own estimate was that over 85 per cent of HIV is transmitted through heterosexual contact. Anjali Gopal of the Naz Foundation had called Sushma’s intervention a “regressive rhetoric”. “How can we talk about AIDS awareness without mentioning condoms? Which ivory tower is she living in?” she had asked. A perplexed Dr Bobby John, India director of Global Fund for AIDS, Malaria and TB, had told Outlook, “This will be music to some ears, including the church which will join hands with the central government, possibly for the first time.” But Sushma had made up her mind. And that was that.