NEW DELHI -
Jitendra Shekhawat has never been to a condom party
before, but he has a great idea for an ice-breaker -- he
blows up a condom until it explodes. The party, in a
wooden shack festooned with condom balloons in the middle
of a sprawling truck parking lot, is one of many
approaches increasingly used by Indian businesses as they
try to work out their role in a country that recently
became the world's HIV capital. Shekhawat and the party's
30 or so other guests are all long-haul truckers, decked
in oily clothes and with hair still untidy from a night's
sleep in their vehicle's cabin.
The hosts are workers from an HIV-prevention charity,
hoping to impart as much information about the deadly
virus as possible before the truckers set off on their
next job, where they will end up thousands of miles from
their wives but only 100 rupees
(1.17 pounds) away from sex with a prostitute.
"It has to be fun or the message doesn't get across," says
Sumant Kumar, a coordinator for the charity, Modicare
Foundation, as the truckers send freshly inflated condom
zeppelins wafting behind his head. But attitudes can be
hard to change, especially among many of India's countless
millions of migrant workers who spend months away from
home, and for many of whom hiring a prostitute is not
unusual once a game of cards turns dull.
"I am quite faithful to my wife," one 23-year-old trucker
says. "But sometimes if I find a good girl when I am out
on long tours in south India, I'll sleep with her. It
passes the time."
India recently overtook South Africa as the country with
to the most people living with HIV -- an estimated 5.7
million, according to the United Nations. And according to
the National AIDS Control Organization, most of these
people are between 15 and 35, in what should be the most
productive years of their lives.
Employers know all this.
"Everyone's been to these conferences where they reel off
relevant costs to the industry," points out economist
Indrani Gupta. But only a minority of companies is
choosing to act.
Unlike many African countries, the prevalence of HIV is
still relatively low in India -- less than 1 percent of
the billion-plus people, if estimates are correct. Some
say this has lulled the many businesses into a false sense
"There's a lot of ostrich mentality. People are thinking,
'There's no problem here so why do we need to do
something?'" said Shefali Chaturvedi, director of the
Indian Business Trust for HIV and AIDS. The trust was
launched in 2001 by the Confederation of Indian Industry,
an association of about 5,000 public and private sector
businesses, to encourage industry to do more.
"Business has to play a leadership role," said Chaturvedi.
"They must look at it as an issue which, given the way the
situation is going, it is likely to affect their own
productivity." The trust is asking companies to adopt its
HIV policy, an undertaking to educate employees and not to
discriminate against those with the virus. So far, about
500 have signed up, including Hero Honda Motors and Tata
NICE OR NECESSARY?
No one is sure to what extent a company should spend money
on HIV-prevention programs out of some sense of corporate
decency, and to what extent a smaller outlay now might
stave off larger costs from HIV-related illnesses in
R.N. Mukhija, a director at Larsen & Toubro Ltd., one of
India's largest engineering firms, says it is a mixture of
the two. The company, which employs about 20,000 people,
has run an ever-expanding HIV-prevention strategy since
the mid-1980s. The company is aware of about a dozen staff
"If we had not spread awareness it would have been much
more," he says. He describes the cost of the program as
The cost of the Modicare Foundation's program would not
make a big dent in a typical large company's training
budget. In a recent program, Modicare's trainers visited
Prakash Industries Ltd. five days a month over seven
months, teaching 1,300 of its
employees about HIV and AIDS.
For this, Prakash paid about 80,000 rupees.
The International Labour Organization estimates paying for
treatment for just one HIV-infected employee, including
antiretroviral drugs, would cost 20,000 rupees a year,
plus costs from absenteeism and treatment for the
opportunistic infections those with HIV are prone to
It says the cost of late intervention is
3.5 to 7.5 times the cost of
early prevention. But when many companies rely heavily on
subcontracted migrant workers, it can be difficult to run
an effective program.
"A company can have a superb policy for its 300 or 400
core staff, but if it doesn't trickle down to their
informal workforce then it's not reaching the people who
really need it," says Denis Broun, the India coordinator
for the UN's HIV-prevention agency.
Worse still, there is little to prevent a business putting
bottom lines ahead of an individual worker's welfare.
"There is no dearth of manpower in
India," says Broun. "So, if one was to look at
things cynically, if you lose an employee and advertise
the position you're going to have a hundred applicants."
($1 = 46.40 rupee)