On Wednesday, National AIDS Control Programme director general Navpreet Kang attempted to tell sex workers how the government could help to remove their marginal status. His audience in Delhi had other ideas.
Kang was addressing a meeting organised by the Centre for Advocacy and Research, which works with people living with HIV. The event was held to discuss their pilot programme in four states that established a link between the sex workers community and the government, by providing legal documents and entitlements.
However, the sex workers wanted to discuss funding problems and the discrimination they faced at anti-retroviral centres that provide treatment for HIV patients. The reduction on allocations has hurt the treatment programmes run by community-based organisations, and also the supply of anti-HIV drugs.
In 2016, the Union Budget cut the allocation to the department of AIDS control by 22% to Rs 1,397 crores from Rs 1,785 crores the year before. Though the amount has been raised ton Rs 1,700 crores this year, systemic problems remain in how the money is disbursed.
So when the floor was left open to questions, many hands shot up.
Kang calmly took note of their problems in his notepad.
“I understand that for the past two years, we have had an issue with payments," he said. "The money has been going to the state treasury and was then sent to the societies [State Aids Control Societies]. That was clogging all the payments. Now we can give it directly to the Societies. It will take another six months for all these issues to clear."
In Solapur, Maharashtra, Kranti Jadhav, president of Kranti Mahila Sangh, complained that sex workers faced discrimination in hospitals.
“If our sisters go to the civil hospital for a HIV test, they ask for a Aadhar card," said Jadhav. "One woman who was in her 50s was asked why she is doing dhandha [sex work] at this age. In this situation how do we get women to go for a test, Sir?”
Kang faced bitter criticism from Vijaylaxmi from Telangana about the discrimination in public hospitals. The activists spoke of clinics that had shut down in their localities, and how the money crunch is affecting them
Kusum from All India Network of Sex Workers, in Delhi wanted to talk. Kang laughed and told her that he meets her often, she need not speak in this forum.
“If I do not talk now, I would let down all my sisters," she said. "The National Aids Control Programme four has failed if it has not addressed these issues of discrimination. Why are these people not trained enough to be sensitive to us? If something like this happened in an Integrated Counselling and Testing Centre, I would protest and get it to shut down.”
Kang broke into a smile and said that she should consider whether closing down a centre was a good idea. The session ended with that statement.
All the women rushed to Kang. They wanted to take selfies with him.