Parliament has passed a crucial Bill to ensure equal rights to the people infected with HIV and AIDS in getting treatment and prevent discrimination of any kind. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – AIDS (Prevention and Control) Bill, 2017 was passed by the Lok Sabha on 11th April and by the Rajya Sabha on March 21 this year.
HIV infection in India was first detected in 1986 amongst female sex workers in Chennai. Though the prevalence of HIV has been decreasing over the last decade, the country still has the third largest HIV epidemic in the world only after South Africa and Nigeria. India’s newly passed HIV bill is the first of its kind in south Asia. South Africa and Nigeria have also passed laws banning some forms of discrimination. There are approximately 21 lakh people estimated to be living with HIV in India. The country reported around 86000 new HIV infections in 2015, showing 66 per cent decline from 2000. Around 68000 people died of AIDS related causes in 2015. The Bill would support National AIDS Control Programme in arresting new infections and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals target of ending the epidemic by 2030.
One of the main reasons such a law was required in the country is that HIV/AIDS has been associated with a lot of stigma and discrimination. Though discrimination has diminished over the years due to government efforts and contribution of civil society, it continues still. The new law will go a long way in ending this discrimination. The Bill defines discrimination as denial or discontinuation of employment, education, healthcare services, renting or residing property, public or private office, insurance and public facilities. Unfair treatment in any of these categories by State or any person will be seen as discrimination, inviting action.
The Bill states that nobody should be tested for HIV as a pre-requisite for securing a job, accessing health care or education. It prohibits publishing of information or advocating of feelings of hatred against HIV positive persons by anybody. For ensuring privacy, the Bill prohibits HIV testing or medical treatment without informed consent. However, informed consent does not include screening by licensed blood banks, medical research or any such purpose where the test is anonymous and not meant to determine the person’s HIV status. An HIV positive person will be required to disclose his/her HIV status only if required by a court order.
There are also penal provisions for discrimination and breach of confidentiality. “Whosoever does not adhere to the provisions of the bill, will be penalised. Civil and criminal proceedings will be launched against such persons,” Health Minister J P Nadda, said. Action would also be taken against those who attempt to block the implementation of the bill.
Violating the confidentiality of HIV positive persons could lead to imprisonment of upto two years and a fine of upto Rs one lakh.
Though treatment for AIDS or anti-retroviral therapy is currently free in government hospitals, the Bill goes a step further by making treatment a legal right of infected people. “Every person in the care and custody of the state shall have right to HIV prevention, testing, treatment and counselling services,” it says. Therefore, the central and state governments will provide treatment for AIDS and opportunistic infections along with infection management services. The central and state governments will also have to take measures to prevent the spread of HIV or AIDS and facilitate access of persons with HIV or AIDS to welfare schemes especially for women and children. The government spent Rs 2, 000 crore on anti retroviral therapy last year.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Prevention and Control) Bill, 2014 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on February 11, 2014 by the then Minister for Health and Family Welfare, Ghulam Nabi Azad. The amendments to this Bill were introduced by the current government in July last year. Since then there have been several changes to the original Bill. For instance, the Bill has adopted “test and treat” policy which means any person testing positive will be entitled for free treatment by the state and central government.
The newly passed Bill has provisions to safeguard the property rights of HIV positive people. Every HIV infected person below the age of 18 years has the right to reside in a shared household and enjoy the facilities of the household. It also states that cases relating to HIV positive persons should be disposed of by courts on a priority basis. If, an HIV infected or affected person is a party in any legal proceeding, the court may pass orders that the proceedings be conducted by suppressing the identity of the person, in camera, and to restrain any person from publishing information that discloses the identity of the applicant. When passing any order with regard to a maintenance application filed by an HIV infected or affected person, the court shall take into account the medical expenses incurred by the applicant.
The Bill requires appointment of ombudsman by each state government to inquire into complaints related to the violation of the Act and the provision of health care services. The Ombudsman shall submit a report to the state government every six months stating the number and nature of complaints received, the actions taken and orders passed. There is also a provision of penalty of Rs 10,000 if the ombudsman’s order is not complied with.
The process of drafting the Bill had started in 2002, when the need for a law was recognised by civil society members, people living with HIV and the government. The Bill is an initiative of the Lawyers Collective, a non-governmental organization. It was presented to the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) in 2006. The Bill was drafted after nationwide consultations with stakeholders including people living with HIV, communities most vulnerable to HIV infection such as sex workers, men having sex with men, transgenders, and drug users, healthcare workers, children’s organisations, women’s groups, trade unions, lawyers, and state AIDS control societies. (Author is a senior science and health journalist with over 18 years of experience. Now an independent journalist, earlier she had worked with reputed news agencies and some other major newspapers. The views expressed in the Article are her personal.)