The people of Mewat are in a denial mode about the AIDS pandemic, little realising that they could be sitting on a live volcano “I think I have AIDS and I am dying .Please send me to jail. At least there, I will be looked after- I will get two square meals and will not go hungry. Can you please help me; my son is also showing the same symptoms,” said a sobbing Anwar Khan, resident of a remote village of Ghandhigram Ghasera in Mewat to this reporter whom he mistook for a doctor.
Anwar Khan is one of the many truck drivers who hail from Mewat and who have been hit by the AIDS pandemic. Khan was earlier employed in the mines near Aravalli hills until the Supreme Court banned mining. Like many other he chose to become a driver after he lost his job.
Anwar Khan is an exception. He is perhaps one of those very few who are willing to own up that he has AIDS. Others refuse to own up that they have a problem and fear mentioning the words HIV/AIDS. Refusing to recognise the existence of the disease in the midst does not mean it is not there. There are hundreds who suffer from this deadly disease in more than 400 plus villages of Mewat, but live in a state of self-denial. The truth, as this reporter pieced together, is so chilling that it can destabilise the entire pastoral community. This scourge is entering homes and infecting clueless women who do not know what their husbands are bringing from their long road journeys.
The journey to get to the bottom of the truth was arduous. Questions were stonewalled and journalistic persistence met with hostile glares. It was after much effort that this reporter found someone who promised to breach this wall of silence and denial. He said that he would try putting him to patients of AIDS. Phone numbers were exchanged and a date was fixed. This reporter packed his bags deciding to spend couple of days in Nuh area of Mewat.
The contacts who promised to take this reporter to AIDS patients turned cold. One contact said he forgot about this appointment and was busy with his brother’s wedding. The second one said he was too sick to accompany him, and the third said – “who told you there was a problem of AIDS- there is nothing of this kind- just go away and don’t try to interfere in our lives”. It seemed someone had briefed them to keep maintain silence on this issue.
It was time to start a search for a person who could help win the confidence of the villagers who could explain the extent of the problem.
Teachers are the best people to talk to in a village. They have a feeling of self importance and consider themselves to be wiser than the rest. They were categorical that talking about HIV/AIDS in the villages of Mewat was not going to be easy. “You mention the word and there is silence. You can only talk about it in hushed tones,” said Maya Chand, a volunteer teacher, working with an NGO.
When asked do you know what this disease is all about, “All I know is that AIDS is a killer disease and spreads if you sit, eat, talk or bath with person who is infected; one who has any kind of blisters. It also spreads if you have sex with a prostitute who is not healthy and is low on hygiene,” said another teacher knowingly
“There have been a few deaths due to AIDS, but no one will own up. We know that Tuberculosis (TB) is a major problem here, but then it is curable. So if it was only TB then they would go in for a treatment. For AIDS they go no where,” added Arshad a young unemployed youth.
Dr. Neeraj Shrivastava from a local hospital puts it, “Mewat is sitting on top of a volcano and the moment it erupts it will engulf everyone and then it would be too late to take any precautionary measures to control it. This is the only place which practices multi partner sex and this must be aggravating the whole issue.”
This reporter spent a night at a dhaba on the Alwar/Jaipur highway and caught up with scores of truck drivers. He was informed by the drivers that the dhabas not only provided cheap food, but sex workers. “During long journeys, we stop by at roadside hotels that usually provide food, rest, sex workers and alcohol. We pick up the women, use them, and leave them at some other dhaba, where they are picked up by others. It is easy to get a women for as less as Rs 20 on the road to Kolkata,” informed a 35 year old driver.
Drivers belonging to + 40 years of age are highly vulnerable, and have the maximum potential for transmission of sexual diseases. They are neither aware about how the virus spreads nor about how HIV/AIDS can be avoided. Condoms though distributed freely along national highways are seldom picked up. “There are many doctors who sit by the roadside and distribute condoms but we don’t have time to visit them and listen to whatever they have to say. Also I am told condoms bring down the sex drive so we prefer not to use them,” confides Rehmuddin, a truck driver.
The local administration chooses to ignore the problem. They are as coy about talking HIV/AIDS as the community. Denying the problem is the best way to defy it. “We haven’t heard of any AIDS cases in the region. However the fact cannot be denied that there is a high probability of HIV/AIDS in Mewat as many truck drivers are from Mewat,” explains VP Maheshwari, Chief Medical Officer Mewat.
On the contrary Mohd Hanif Sarpanch Gandhigram Ghasera says, “We have seen many deaths because of AIDS in our village, but I am shocked to know that the administration is refusing to own up”. The problem here is of attitude. It is almost impossible to talk about HIV/AIDS as the society refuses to discuss sex or sex related problems with anyone. With an 8 per cent literacy rate amongst women the problem can only multiply.
An NGO had once attempted to organise an AIDS awareness camp in Mewat but the villagers would not listen to them and asked them to leave. Some of the workers were beaten up and the shamianas were destroyed.
Mewat has been one of the most backward regions of India, despite its proximity to the hi-tech city of Gurgaon. The people of Mewat are still socially, educationally, economically and culturally as backward as they were many centuries ago.
The government hospital in the Nuh block of Mewat is nothing more than an empty building with a small dispensary and a couple of doctors. In the absence of patients it is common to find the doctors at the tea shop rather than in the OPD room. When asked about the AIDS scenario in the district the doctor said with a smirk that this is the first time that someone has come to their hospital and asked them about AIDS. “The biggest problem in this conservative society is that people don’t want to talk about AIDS and prefer to go local neem hakeems (local quacks) for diseases related to sex and sexual disorders. Many of them also go to private hospitals to hide their identity,” informed Rahul Srivastava at Nuh hospital. There is no voluntary counselling and testing centre (VCTC) and neither is there any AIDS testing centre.
The need for VCTC’s, blood testing centres and district AIDS control society should be the topmost priority of the administration as that might encourage people to come more frequently to these hospitals and show faith in the health system. “The people in the area have to go to Alwar, Gurgaon and Delhi for getting these tests done. So even if we take it that some are going in for treatment, it’s hard to tell one how many are infected but we need to take control of the situation soon,” informs BP Sharma, Director of Health Services, Mewat.
But as the doctors put it, the worst is yet to come as it takes five to seven years for AIDS to start showing its signs. “Mewat is on the edge. The number of AIDS patients we will have in future is uncertain but I am very sure it will be huge. No one has ever investigated the real numbers and it will take some more years for the disease to surface on a very large scale,” confides Surendra Sharma, a resident doctor.