By Terry Friel
SILIGURI, India (Reuters) – Niram Sharma is 28, jobless and
dying. He says he is lucky.
For, unlike Niram, most of the new friends he has made at
HIV/AIDS support groups in this bustling Indian trading town
can’t afford the medicine that could give them 10 to 15 more
years of life.
The cost? Just 1,300 rupees ($29.85) a month — less than
one cup of coffee every two days in London or New York.
“I come from a good family, so I can afford this medicine,
but my heart cries for the other people,” he says, speaking
rapidly in his passion. “Many are dying because they are too
poor. Poverty is a big problem up here.”
With India’s 5-million-plus HIV/AIDS patients rivaling the
world’s AIDS capital, South Africa, its cheap drug industry has
pioneered low-cost treatment, bringing the price down from
$200-$300 a month a decade ago.
But it is still too much for many sufferers here, some
living on less than $1 a day — if they are lucky and their
employer has not found out they are infected and thrown them
The official infection rate in the world’s second most
populous country is less than 0.1 percent, compared with 30
percent in some African countries.
But India’s poor healthcare and rampant disease mean many
die of other causes without them, or anyone else, ever knowing
they are infected.
Many shy away from government hospitals, where reporting
new infections is compulsory. But then that leaves them prey to
blackmail, with many clinics faking results or demanding money
not to mention real positive results.
It has been two years since Niram found out he was
HIV-positive — most likely from homosexual sex a decade ago —
at a routine physical for a job at a hotel in Dubai.
“I had gone with a dream to make my fortune,” he says.
“When I found out, I felt I would die the next day.”
Now he spends his time supporting other sufferers and
trying to make people listen to their plight.
“We have been asking for help from the government, but our
voice does not carry,” he says. “We are doing a lot of the work
Two of those he helps are “Rupak” and “Rupa” who don’t want
their real names used because they don’t want neighbors in
their small rice-growing village to find out what is really
wrong with them.
Even their four children, aged 11 to 22, don’t know.
“It’s a very social thing,” says Rupak. “You never know how
they would react, what they would think of us.
“The disease is there, but the problem is when someone
knows, then their behavior is quite bad. What have we done?
Don’t we deserve a normal life as well?”
Indian officials say the government’s awareness campaign is
paying off with a big drop in the number of new infections. But
AIDS activists say numbers are actually increasing. And
In Siliguri’s Khalpara red light district, a squalid slum
where excrement floats thickly in the open drains, most
customers still refuse to use a condom.
On top of the dollar or two for the sex, they throw in
10-15 rupees (23-34 cents) to go without. A condom costs just
WAITING TO DIE
This is a place where the handful of near-empty laneway
stalls do not sell food or lollies, just some basic beauty
essentials, such as hairbands and shampoo.
Workers from the local group Durbar hand out 10,000 free
condoms a month and sell another 11,000 at subsidized prices.
Still, the girls boost their income by selling many of the
free ones at the local market rather than using them.
Doctor D. Rudra, who has been working with HIV/AIDS
patients in this narrow part of India between Nepal, Bhutan and
Bangladesh for more than a decade, says the most common form of
transmission is still unprotected sex.
He is pessimistic and says parts of India will soon lose an
entire generation, leaving only grandparents and orphans. He
believes AIDS will one day destroy the country’s economic boom.
“If this continues, then in one decade India’s economy will
be nowhere,” he says. “The hospitals will be full of AIDS
“The youth are being infected. Once they are infected the
country is doomed. And this is going to happen.” ($1 = 43.5