Gauri Sawant took a look at the audience, patted a lock of her hair in place and launched into her presentation with an apology: I don’t understand the khichidi behind me.
Behind her on a giant screen was a family-tree graphic of transgenders in India, prepared by health ministry officials to showcase the new challenge before India.
Gauri, a transgender from Mumbai and an activist, made her first appearance at an international conference, dressed in an eye-catching ensemble all too familiar to Indians.
Sawant represents the new challenge for India’s HIV/AIDS machinery being feted at home and abroad for halving the rate of new infections. “Certain vulnerable groups are emerging such as truckers, migrants and transgenders,” said health ministry official Aradhana Johri, citing new, unpublished data.
The Indian success story — of 56% reduction in new infections over the past decade — is the stuff of legends that drew a packed house on the sidelines of the World Aids conference. But that’s ageing news. The new story is of new challenges.
Johri said that according to new data, the new challenges for India’s HIV strategy are transgenders, migrants and truckers.
West Bengal is ranked the highest for HIV incidence among its truckers — strange, said experts, considering that most truckers come from Punjab and Haryana. It’s 3.7% compared to the national average of 2.6%.
The penny-dropping moment for HIV monitors in India was the discovery of a sudden bump in the incidence of HIV in a backward region of Odisha,a district called Ganjam.
Officials said monitors soon found a link between Ganjam and Gujarat’s high-incidence port city Surat. “Workers commuting between the two cities were the worst transmitters”.
Migrants, said Johri, were among the emerging high-incidence groups, accounting for the spurt in areas earlier considered under control, safe.
Even more troubling for both the government and civic society is the nature of the danger posed by transgenders, a community which reports a high incident of HIV but remains largely undocumented.
Indian officials admitted they are still to figure out, but, they added, every attempt was being made to track the community’s size and nature.