New Delhi: Debashish doesn’t remember being shocked or afraid the day he learnt of his HIV-positive status. “I was numb all day. I spent all evening in the park, came home, and bawled.”
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
That was two Decembers ago.
The 28-year-old, who prefers to use a single name, doesn’t have AIDS and can afford good healthcare. He says he’s lucky because his parents and siblings are supportive. “They are distraught, but because I’m not sick now, they are hoping I get well. I’m a realist who’s only crossed his fingers.”
But that’s also kept him from disclosing his HIV-positive status to his employers. “There’s no way I was ever going to tell my colleagues. It’s not going to be of any help,” said Debashish, who said that till February he worked in “one of Bangalore’s well-known software companies.”
He had read about AIDS on the Internet and knew how HIV was transmitted even before he got it and “saw Philadelphia a long time back”. In the Tom Hanks movie, an HIV-positive lawyer takes on his employers after they fire him for his medical condition. Debashish knew his rights but feared being a poster boy. “I’m not saying they would have sacked me, but come on, I didn’t want the whole world treating me like a curio.”
This, in spite of corporate India increasingly signing commitments and government departments prominently displaying policies condemning discriminatory practices towards employees with HIV/AIDS.
Debashish is one of 2.31 million people in India with HIV/AIDS, according to a 2007 estimate by the government’s National AIDS Control Organisation, or Naco, the latest data available. That includes 89% adults in the 15-49 age group, 7.5% aged 50 and above, with the remaining 3.5% who are younger than 15. The prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS in the country is 0.34%, and women account for 39% of the figures.
Last month, India’s labour ministry came out with a national policy on HIV/AIDS, and the 32-page document prescribes, but does not mandate, measures for organizations on HIV/AIDS.
“There are serious initiatives to educate employees about HIV, but there’s no real trend or pattern in employees proactively disclosing their status (HIV-positive/AIDS) in India,” said Joshila Pallapati, programme officer at the International Labour Organization, or ILO, in New Delhi. ILO closely worked with the government in preparing the national policy.
Several companies, including Gujarat Ambuja Exports Ltd, Apollo Tyres Ltd, Crompton Greaves Ltd, SRF Ltd, Ballarpur Industries Ltd, PepsiCo Inc., Hindustan Unilever Ltd and Jubilant Organosys Ltd, have committed to principles such as non-discrimination toward HIV/AIDS employees and creating AIDS awareness in the office.
Companies that responded to Mint’s queries emphasized that employees who disclosed their HIV-positive status would be taken care of. “Signing the policy is just one of the steps... we haven’t had to deal with (HIV/AIDS) positive employees yet, but if it were to happen, their well-being would be top priority and no discrimination will occur,” said a spokesperson for Bangalore-based pharma company Jubilant Organosys. (The promoters of HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint, and the promoters of Jubilant Organosys are closely related.)
R. Ram, a spokesperson for Hindustan Unilever, added that several initiatives, including HIV/AIDS awareness programmes and access to ART (antiretroviral therapy), were key components of the company’s policies.
There’s also an HIV Bill being pushed by the ministry of health and family welfare and a clutch of advocacy groups such as the Lawyers Collective, ActionAid and the Indian Network for People Living with HIV/AIDS (INP+).
The thrust of the Bill, which has been hanging fire since 2006, is to make employers liable for any discrimination at the workplace against HIV/AIDS employees and responsible for guaranteeing them a safe working environment. The law ministry, which must clear all proposed Bills before they are tabled in Parliament, has sent the HIV Bill back to the health ministry.
Civil society groups say the Bill isn’t going through because the law ministry has watered down several of its provisions. “Important portions such as guaranteeing property rights to children of HIV-positive parents, assured treatment at hospitals have been done away with. It can’t go in this form,” said a member of INP+, who didn’t want to be identified.
Even if the HIV Bill eventually becomes an Act, AIDS activists as well as policy experts say it wouldn’t lead to proactive disclosure at the workplace. “Even if explicit discrimination goes away, there’s going to be soft discrimination at work. Plus, they (the employers) could always find ways to fire you. Why would any employee risk it?” said Christy Abraham, a spokesperson for INP+.
Others argue that since the larger chunk of India’s employed HIV/AIDS is in the informal sector, it would be a while, if at all, before they are open about their status. “This is going to be a slow process. On the one hand, employees don’t have an obligation to declare their status. On the other, AIDS must be seen as a manageable condition like diabetes or cancer,” Pallapati added.
Debashish quit his job last year and says he’s preparing for the graduate management admission test. “I’ve postponed that MBA long enough. But any future place I work, I still won’t tell them. I’ll put in my best as long as I can.”