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THE world's health authorities and epidemiologists predict that India is heading pellmell for a major AIDS epidemic if preventive action is not taken urgently. But AIDS doesn't feature on the priority list of the Indian authorities. One official goes to the extent of saying that "AIDS is not yet a live problem in India". Yet the HIV positive number is increasing every day, with 1.6 million cases identified to date. An ASAP production, AIDS: The New Untouchables (46.30 min), screened at the Alliance Francaise in Delhi, examines the issue in detail.
Interviews with sex workers, both male and female, reveal the double standards of the arch-conservative Indian society. Noted columnist Khushwant Singh and writer Shobha De speak out strongly against society's hypocrisy and its refusal to look the problem in the eye and accept its frightening gravity. Behind a curtain of prudishness, India is passing the buck to the West and its alleged promiscuity.
Made for an overseas audience, the film goes through the entire gamut of social and health issues connected with AIDS. In India, about 2 million truck drivers are on the roads on any given day. Many of them patronise brothels in villages lining the country's highways. And their quicksilver mobility is major cause of the spread of the HIV virus. When talking about juvenile prostitution, the film reveals shockingly that about 30 per cent of the street children are infected with the virus.
Blood banks and professional blood donors constitute another high-risk group. With an eye on its audience, the film digs into some myths that beleaguer notions about AIDS. It mentions, for instance, that AIDS patients in the Madras Medical College are kept in isolation, with no hospital staff tending to their needs. The patients do their own cooking and cleaning; the sad monotony is occasionally broken by an infrequent relative dropping in with provisions.
The film completely ignores the legal confusion surrounding the disease. In fact, although it peeps at the social angle, it cold shoulders the better informed middle and upper classes. The makers also miss out on the fact that some time ago, a woman had sued a hospital in Bombay for negligence after she had been injected with contaminated blood. Another factual error -- a gross one -- is calling Khushwant Singh a historian. He is not, and it is not an epithet that Singh will appreciate.
The New Untouchables has nothing new to say. Its one redeeming feature is that it is not bigoted -- it doesn't round on women sex workers as AIDS carriers, which is what most of the media has done.
Tagging along with the film was an exhibition of posters on AIDS. The exhibition has been touring the world since December 1, 1993 (World AIDS Day). About 37 artists, photographers and designers depict the social and psychological dimensions of AIDS, and the necessity of taking on the individual responbility to battle it.