New Delhi: Mohan Singh Rana is the chief executive officer of the Red Ribbon Express, one of the world’s largest advocacy campaigns ever mounted. An initiative that was carried out by National AIDS Control Organization (Naco), the Indian Railways, Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan (NYKS) and a host of different government and non-governmental organizations, it is travelling across the country, halting at 180 designated stations, following a meticulously laid out plan. Simantik Dowerah caught up with the officer while he supervised operations of the Red Ribbon Express in Northeast India. Excerpts from various discussions held during the period:

How did the concept of the Red Ribbon Express (RRE) take shape?

Coinciding with World AIDS Day on 1 December 2007, the Red Ribbon Express was flagged off by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi from New Delhi’s Safdurjung station. The train chugged out with an ambitious travel plan that aims to cover over 9,000km, while halting at 180 districts and reaching 43,200 villages across the country.

On rails for a year: Mohan Singh Rana says the Red Ribbon Express will cover 180 districts and 43,200 villages in the country spread over 9,000km

The plan involved coordination and participation of NGOs, CBOs, healthcare workers, volunteers, social activists and the general public. The brain child of the then director general, Naco Dr SY Quraishi, the initiative was envisaged as a multi-sectoral and multi-activity social mobilization campaign in 2004.

On what basis was the RRE’s routing worked out?

It wasn’t easy to fix the entire route given the vastness of the country and the varied geographical terrain. Sticking to a time period of a year was another daunting task. There was no extra time for the train to spare anywhere. Initially two trains were planned but it was one train that was finally designated by the Indian Railways exclusively for the purpose. Railway minister, Laloo Yadav has since said that he would allocate another train in 2009.

The routing was worked out based on the prevalence rate of the HIV infection. States and districts that had recorded high infection rates and vulnerabilities were on top of the agenda. Besides, the north-eastern states that have always battled with issues of accessibility and reach were high on priority. The train was to spend sufficient time in these states, reaching out to different cross-sections of people, both on the railway platform/station and within the villages in the vicinity.

What about the special look and feel of the train, which is very different from the regular Indian Railways entity?

Various advertising agencies worked on the project, taking into account regional specifications. The train’s branding was one part of the story while the other was designing, printing, translating material for different audiences with information, photographs, charts, posters and self explanatory manuals.

Planning and designing the exteriors and the interiors of the train was a process that again involved many agencies and concepts. Innovatively plastered with relevant HIV/ AIDS messaging, it factored in India’s 22 officially recognized languages and dialects along with its cultural diversities, in order to make it relevant for each set of audiences.

Several ad agencies bid for the project, which finally went to JWT. The yellow, red and green facade of the train succeeded in drawing people. Of the seven coaches, three were for exhibitions and one each for counseling and medical services. There was also an auditorium-cum-conference coach and a pantry car. Facilities of lodging were available for the local artiste troupes of each state who would hold people’s attention and engage them through drama, street theatre, games, workshops, demonstrations and other folk media.

What was the plan on spreading the message, expanding the circle?

The primary focus of the train is to cut across states spreading awareness on HIV/AIDS and promoting behavioural changes through counselling, training, multi-media content, exhibitions and cultural performances. Nevertheless, the Red Ribbon Express became the platform for many different agencies to perform on the same platform together.

The huge youth network NYKS had hundreds of volunteers fanning out at every station. Using bicycles, they zipped across to a cluster of villages and created a buzz about the arrival of the train, informing the rural population about the RRE and explaining to them the purpose of the train’s visit.

Union government ministries like Rural Development, Panchayati Raj, Women and Child Development, Information and Broadcasting, Social Justice and Empowerment and Human Resource and Development and international funding organizations like UNAIDS promoted preventive health habits and lifestyles with regard to HIV.

State AIDS Control Societies (SACS), National Cadet Corps (NCC), Scouts and Guides, Songs and Drama Divisions, Red Cross and volunteers from the National Service Scheme (NSS) also played a role in ensuring that correct information was disseminated and more people stepped forward voluntarily to avail of testing facilities to know their HIV status.

Apart from the groups that went out on bicyles, young campaigners or advance teams travelled in buses to cover longer distances. They prepared a receptive atmosphere, by mobilizing the community and having the troupes received by the Panchayat or village head. The enthusiasm of the villages was particularly warm, because each one of them had received a letter from the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh himself, seeking their support and participation.

Surely, there must have been some glitches too?

The biggest problem is we did not have any Indian Railways staff moving along with the train. In small places where the train encountered air conditioning problems or any breakdowns, resulting in inconvenience and delay. It affected visitor flow as well.

Filling water tanks of the coaches was difficult in places where the stations did not have running water. In Nagaland’s Dimapur district, the troupes on board the train had an argument with the authorities as both the AC failure and non-availability of water aboard the train, led to people falling ill.

Insensitive visitors who thronged the venue with the objective of having fun was also irritating but this was a hazard we were wiling to deal with.

Which states elicited the most response?

By the first week of March when the train was in Assam after having visited 10 states, we could clearly see that this was a most successful campaign. The crowds were very supportive in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand where we had more than 11,000 visitors daily just visiting the stationary exhibition and nearly a lakh people on the platform.

When does the RRE journey end and what next?

The Red Ribbon Express will wind up its journey on World AIDS Day 2008, exactly a day after it took off at the Safdurjung station in New Delhi. By then we would have data and case studies to show the impact and response this campaign has generated. The success of RRE will motiviate us to strengthen this maiden effort and to plan similar mega campaigns that have the potential of reaching out to people in the rural hinterland with information and tools that can empower them to make the right health and lifestyle choices.

Simantik Dowerah covered the Red Ribbon Express tour in Assam and Nagaland while on its mission to educate the masses on HIV and AIDS.