Friday, July 14, 2006

In Health Ministry's AIIMS, AIDS no objective

In Health Ministry's AIIMS, AIDS no objective
It was probably the most high profile and meaningful meeting on the issue of Trafficking and HIV/AIDS. Organised by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), a statutory body headed by the Chief Justice of India, and the UNDP-TAHA project, it brought together judicial luminaries, two dozen MPs, top bureaucrats from 11 States where the UNDP-funded project is going on, and head honchos of all major voluntary organisations working in the arena of HIV/AIDS and human trafficking.
Significantly, however, one crucial component was missing. No senior representative of the nodal Government agency, National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) was present. Nor were any officials from the Union Health Ministry. Apparently, they were detained in Delhi to assist their belligerent Minister, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, exact terrible vengeance on India's highly celebrated cardiac surgeon Dr P Venugopal.
But why was NACO, the officially designated body for AIDS control, also absent? Some speculated it was the result of a turf war: NACO was unwilling to cede any space even to NALSA on AIDS-related issues. Others said they took the cue from the Health Minister's current obsession: AIDS could wait; Dr Venugopal's ouster could not.
These abstentions came in for sharp criticism from other participants. First, BJP MP Vinay Katiyar mentioned this. Thereafter Amar Singh, Samajwadi Party general-secretary took serious exception to it. And finally, Supreme Court's senior-most judge, Justice KG Balakrishnan, executive president of NALSA, roundly condemned the Ministry's and NACO's attitude.
Considering Justice Balakrishnan will soon become CJI and hold the position till 2010, the absentees may have really asked for trouble. Dr Ramadoss keeps queering his own pitch!
The two-day conference at the Leela Kempinski resort in picturesque Kovalam on Thiruvananthapuram's outskirts on July 8 and 9 threw up some new dimensions on the issue. Particularly significant was the linkage made between trafficking and HIV/AIDS. This was perhaps the first occasion that so many policy makers interacted with those implementing the policies on the ground.
Sushma Swaraj, Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs, made a major contribution to the discussion by virtue of her experience as Health Minister in the NDA Government. She emphatically called for enactment of a Victim Protection Protocol for trafficked women to bring them legally on par with rape victims.
Justice Nazik Bilal of the Andhra Pradesh High Court pointed to the multiplicity of Acts with regard to trafficking and asked if there were enough policemen to enforce them or enough magistrates and judges to try those cases. There was a sustained debate on the advisability of Section 5(c) of the Immorally Trafficked Persons Act (ITPA), which has replaced the erstwhile SITA. The disputed clause, many participants such as lawyer Anand Grover and former sex worker Putul Singh argued, would "criminalise" clients whereas the need was to de-criminalise the profession.
Almost all participants emphasised the relationship between trafficking and AIDS. They pressed Government agencies, particularly NACO, to broaden its horizon, not to look at AIDS as a purely medical problem that could be curbed by enhancing free distribution of condoms, but also address the social and psychological dimensions of both HIV-infected and trafficked people, especially women and children.
In many senses, the two-day interaction between MPs representing seven Parliamentary Standing Committees, the higher judiciary, Government and non-Government organisations, was an eye-opener for us. Interestingly, it also marked a serious effort by the judiciary to reach out to various agencies and acknowledge the need to sensitise magistrates and judges to the human dimension of this humungous problem. Several delegates pointed to the fact that despite lot of official efforts and deployment of resources the number of HIV-infected persons in India had gone up from one in 1986 to over 5 million in 2006.
The presence of four Standing Committee chairpersons, Ms Sushma Swaraj, Mr Amar Singh, Ms Sumitra Mahajan and EMS Natchiappan, and MPs like SS Ahluwalia, Vinay Katiyar, Anusuiya Uikey (all BJP) K Chandran Pillai, P Madhu, Sebastian Paul (CPI-M), SG Indira (TDP), DK Sharma, Silvius Condopan (Congress) and this correspondent, lent an importance to the brainstorming rarely experienced hitherto. This will undoubtedly impact the forthcoming debate on the long-awaited AIDS Bill 2005 in Parliament.
The Kovalam conference was the first foray into a wide consultative process by the judiciary. Hopefully, this will become the norm on many social issues that have a legal and legislative dimension. If the legislature, judiciary and executive engage in such dialogue along with NGOs in different specialised areas, both the framing of laws and their implementation could improve dramatically.


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