Feature story

Bipartisan Indian political leadership pledges to sustain India’s successful AIDS response

04 July 2011

L to R: Oscar Fernandes, Member of Parliament and President of the Parliamentary Forum, Sonia Gandhi, Chair of the United Progressive Alliance, Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, Gulam Nabi Azad, Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS.
Credit: UNAIDS/Naresh

India’s AIDS response has transformed in the last ten years, backed by strong bipartisan political support for its AIDS response and a vibrant civil society movement. New HIV infections in the country have fallen by more than 50% in the last decade. Antiretroviral treatment is now being accessed by more than 400 000 people living with HIV. The Government of India is now rolling out free second line antiretroviral treatment to people in need. Yet the HIV prevention and treatment gap in India remains high.

“There is no room for complacency, even as we are showing success in AIDS response,” said Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, while inaugurating the National Convention of Parliamentarians, Legislators and elected representatives of urban and rural bodies of India. “Let us not forget that there are 24 lakh people [2.4 million] living with HIV in India. There should be no let-up in our efforts to provide treatment to people living with HIV and prevent others from getting infected,” he added.

There is no room for complacency, even as we are showing success in AIDS response

Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India

Welcoming participants to the convention, India’s Health minister Gulam Nabi Azad drew attention to the growing need for increasing domestic investments for the AIDS response in the wake of reduced international funding for AIDS. UNAIDS’ estimates show that nearly one third of India’s expenditure is currently funded from domestic sources. “Many international donors are reducing their assistance to India or stopping them all together. We cannot afford to have constrained investments for HIV as we hope to expand our programme,” said Mr Azad. “I urge the Government of India to increase its domestic investments.”

Praising India’s bipartisan political support for the AIDS response, the Chair of the ruling United Progressive Alliance Sonia Gandhi called for a sustained focus of the AIDS response in providing universal access to medicines and health across the country. “Though India has been able to reduce the new infections by 50% in last 10 years, there is no room for complacency and efforts must be sustained and consolidated for long term gains,” said Mrs Gandhi. “AIDS is not a health issue alone rather it involves all aspects of social, economic and developmental facets. We can develop strategies, programmes, thrusts and priorities but let us not forget that these have to reach men, women and children who, almost invariably, belong to the most disadvantaged and deprived sections of society.”

Speakers also recalled the pivotal role played by India in expanding universal access to HIV treatment to people living with HIV across the world, especially in Africa. Speaking at the opening of the National Convention, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé called on India to ensure that the use of flexibilities under TRIPS be maintained to ensure that access to affordable and quality medicines is assured in the long term. 

Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India opening the National Convention with the traditional “lighting of the lamp” along with Mrs Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance and Mr Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director.
Credit: UNAIDS/Naresh

Recalling the pivotal role played by India’s leaders in ending social inequity and social injustice he called for ending the global dichotomy of access to HIV services between the rich and poor. “There is no reason why the value of a life in the north should be different from people in the south,” said Mr Sidibé.

“I want to study and rise in life. I want to become a social worker and help other children and people living with HIV,” said Ms Romana, a young person living with HIV, to the Indian Prime Minister.

Outlining the various challenges still faced by the AIDS response, the Indian Prime Minister showed particular concern for stopping new HIV infections among children. “Our efforts to stop HIV amongst children are being hampered by the low level of institutional deliveries by pregnant women in India,” said Dr Singh. “Fortunately there has been much progress in our Janani Suraksha [Safe motherhood] programme. There has to be convergence between the two programmes [safe motherhood and HIV] to reduce HIV transmission to children in the country.”   

“India can eliminate new HIV infections among children by 2015,” said Mr Sidibé. “We have the medicines, we have the technology, and we know how to do it. What we need now is political leadership to make this commitment.”

Responding to the UNAIDS Executive Director’s call, Oscar Fernandes, Member of Parliament and President of the Parliamentary Forum said that, “by increasing institutional based deliveries and integrating HIV prevention programmes we are determined to stop new HIV infections among children.”

During the Convention, the leader of opposition in India’s lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, Sushma  Swaraj called for an end to stigma and discrimination in the country. “AIDS is not a contagious disease. We have to stand up and show to our people that people with HIV are like us and not a risk to society,” said Mrs Swaraj, who also called for ensuring the children living with HIV have a right to education.

The National Convention brought together more than 1 000 elected representatives and civil society organizations and was organized by the National Forum of Parliamentarians on HIV/AIDS in collaboration with UNAIDS and the National AIDS Control Organization of India.  “This is a meeting of convergence and of implementation,” said J.D. Seelam, Member of Parliament and Secretary-General of the National Parliamentary Forum. “We have to tap the three million local bodies of India if we have to achieve our goals.”

A declaration is expected to be adopted by the elected at the end of the convention. “We are taking the AIDS issue to the masses through their elected representatives,” said Mr Fernandes.