Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on August 14, 2006
Just in time for the big AIDS conference now taking place in Toronto, some good news at long last from India. The country has more HIV patients than anywhere else in the world, but officials from Western NGOs in the past have harshly criticized the Indian government’s unwillingness to tackle the problem. And – especially galling for Indian patriots jittery about China – those same officials have praised the way the Chinese have moved aggressively to combat the virus. (One example: Dick Holbrooke, the former U.N. ambassador under Bill Clinton who now is head of the New York-based Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS. Here’s an interview with Holbrooke from last autumn when he was in Hong Kong.)
Ironically, India’s rise as an IT power may only be making the situation worse since so many young people who work in the call centers are single, living away from home for the first time, hard-partying – and sexually active. (In India, 80% of HIV infections are sexually transmitted.) So far, AIDS has been a poor person’s disease in India, but that won’t last if the virus establishes itself among the call center workers, says John Tedstrom, the new executive director of Holbrooke’s NGO. “Movement into the middle class presents a potentially scary scenario five years out from now if they don’t do anything,” says Tedstrom. (I spoke with him and some other execs from the Global Business Coalition last week in New York.)
But, he adds, they are actually doing something. Tedstrom is impressed with the willingness of the Indian government to wake up to its HIV problem. He is encouraged, for instance, by the government’s formation of a national council to coordinate HIV policy among dozens of ministries. The director-general of the National AIDS Control Organization, Sujatha Rao, also wins kudos from GBC execs. The change is due largely to the departure of the BJP and the arrival of a Congress Party-led coalition government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The prime minister “is taking a much more pro-active approach,” says Tedstrom. India sure needs it. The GBC just did a survey of 20 call centers in India. Even with the obvious risks to their workers, only one-third of the companies had come up with HIV policies for their staff.