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Reverse swing: It may be an open affair for gays, lesbians July 15, 2008

Posted by nitinkarani in English, Pride 2008, Section 377, Times of India.
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From Economic Times:

2 Jul, 2008, 0231 hrs IST,Vikram Doctor, ET Bureau

NEW DELHI: Was minister of state of labour and employment Oscar Fernandes influenced by India’s first national gay and lesbian pride celebrations which had taken place, just the day before, on Sunday (June 29)?

Because on Monday, at a function to mark the release of a report on the impact of AIDS in Asia, produced for UNAIDS by an independent commission headed by C Rangarajan, ex-governor of RBI and current chairman of Economic Advisory Council to the PM, Mr Fernandes made the most categorical statement in favour of decriminalising homosexuality ever to come from a member of the Indian government (in the presence of the prime minister as well).

“Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (which criminalises homosexuality) needs to go,” said Mr Fernandes. “It is time for India to move forward on this.” Mr Fernandes perhaps felt emboldened to make this statement because he was sweeping after two speakers, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mr Rangarajan, who in less dramatic and specific, but no less a firm way, had made the point that the legal restrictions that came in the way of combating HIV/AIDS, of which Section 377 is a prime example, need to go.

“Laws and public policy should not stand in the way of efforts to provide prevention services and treatment where it is most needed,” said Mr Rangarajan.

And he was clear where this was. For the last year-and-a-half, Mr Rangarajan, who is more known in India for monetary rather than medical policy, has been immersing himself in the hard realities of how AIDS spreads in Asia and its current and potential impact.

From this, he learned that high-risk groups like commercial sex workers, injected drug users and men who have sex with men are the main vectors, but “it does not mean that it is contained with this group alone,” he cautioned.

What these high-risk groups represent are the opportunity to control the epidemic. If it was allowed to spill over into the wider population the costs were going to be high. “Unless we provide immediate and effective services, AIDS will remain the highest disease-related cause of death and workdays lost for adults below 45 years of age,” said Dr Rangarajan. “Without concerted responses Asia can expect an annual economic loss of $2 billion by 2020.”

The one good sign, he said, was that if the disease was immediately tackled there was a chance of stemming it. Comprehensive and coordinated HIV/AIDs policies were needed, to be undertaken by commissions chaired by heads of government (as is the case in India).

At least 50 cents per capita per annum had to be invested to ensure that the majority of people receive services for prevention and treatment of the disease. And since the high-risk groups were key to the disease in Asia (as opposed to Africa, where it spreads through more general unsafe sexual practices), they must be engaged with and helped to control the disease, rather than criminalising them and driving them underground and dangerously out of reach.

The prime minister’s views were, not surprisingly, the most restrained, but not without substance. He welcomed the report he said, not least because it validated much of the way in which the Indian government tackled the epidemic. Yet he said there were no grounds for complacency. The disease had to be combated on all fronts, including dealing with groups who have faced stigmatisation.
“The fact that many of the vulnerable social groups, be they sex workers or homosexuals or drug users, face great social prejudice has made the task of identifying AIDS victims and treating them very difficult,” said Dr Singh “If we have to win this fight against HIV/AIDS we have to create a more tolerant social environment.”

The prime minister noted that one did not have to condone a group’s practices in order to seek a tolerant solution to the problem of AIDS. Such epidemics affected society as a whole, and should be answered by society as a whole.

This, Dr Singh said, was the essence of the ancient Indian principle of Vasudeva Kutumbakam, that we are all one family. As a recommendation for social change this sounded less dramatic than Mr Fernandes’ statement, but in its characteristically understated way, it was no less radical.

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