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Whether our ‘conscience keepers’ like it or not, more condoms need to be properly distributed to prevent diseases and unwanted pregnancies, report Sushmita Bose and Amitava Sanyal.

business Updated: Jul 29, 2007 00:28 IST

If you ask Ashok Row Kavi, gay rights activist and resource person of National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), about the biggest stumbling block on the road to condom usage, he says: “Men.” Explanation: “All they are bothered about is pleasure; condoms, they feel, reduce pleasure, so they don’t want to use them.”

The way out is “condoms being married to pleasure”. Enter, ribbed, flavoured, long-lasting, vibrating variants. Take this case in point. An organisation funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is test-marketing paan-flavoured condoms in Mumbai (the condoms are manufactured by the public-sector Hindustan Latex). “It’s a very clever shift towards oral sex, using a flavour Indians are familiar with,” says Kavi, who claims that the condom is a “big hit” in Mumbai.

What about the controversy that Hindustan Latex’s Crezendo brand stirred up in Madhya Pradesh? Gopi Gopalakrishnan, country director (Vietnam) of DKT International, which works on the social marketing of condoms in 12 countries including India, says, “It is good to have such controversies. It’s word-of-mouth publicity, which is the cheapest and often the most credible form of communication.” In other words, as long as the Kailash Vijayavargiyas (the Madhya Pradesh PWD & IT minister who set off the vibrations with a letter to the Prime Minister) and the Sushma Swarajs of the country keep their ‘thought condoms’ on, the real condom campaigns stand to gain. True to the thought, Hindustan Latex chairman and managing director M Ayyappan says: “The publicity over Crezendo only helped us — not only did we exhaust our stock, but are now in the process of procuring three lakh units more. This is the third time we are having a supply shortage in three months.”

Condoms and their sociology have indeed come a long way in India. But their, ahem, penetration has not really gone far into rural India, where they are distributed mostly through the State AIDS Control Societies (SACS) and social marketing channels. A lot of it is wasted due to the lack of proper distribution. Many of these pieces eventually find their way to making chappals, lining hut roofs, or oiling loom shuttles (with the non-staining lubricant). Bad distribution also leads to the problem of having outdated products in circulation. Vivek Anand, CEO of Humsafar Trust, says it’s silly to expect condom users to look at “user instructions and expiry dates in the dead of the night” when you have only one thing on your mind.

Manoj Gopalakrishna, CEO of Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust, says, “Some 10-40 per cent of the condoms marked for free distribution are wasted between the district and blocks levels in various states. NACO is working on IT-enabling the SACS networks and bringing the wastage down to 4-5 per cent in a couple of years.” For now, it seems that mostly urban, middle-class India is getting to ‘cap it’.

We tend to forget that this is the country that started the world’s first social marketing programme with the Nirodh campaign in the mid-1960s. The government procured condoms from various companies and coerced large-network FMCG and durables companies such as ITC, Union Carbide (till the Bhopal gas tragedy), Hindustan Lever and Voltas to distribute them. When the winds of liberalisation started blowing in the early 1990s, specialised social marketing agencies like PSI, Marie Stopes, Family Planning Association of India and DKT International entered the scene, and the private sector companies kept to their own domains.

As for the products, the paradigm shift since the pre-liberalisation days, of course, has been the fun, wacky element. Like the Bindaas Bol campaign that USAID’s project Private Sector Partnerships-One (PSP-One) ran in India for a few years. Despite the long campaigns, even now there are huge cultural and social landmines in India vis-à-vis condoms, stemming from the perception that condom equals sex — and sex is, of course, taboo in this post-Victorian land of the Kamasutra.

“The toughest part is to maintain the fine line between appearing to promote promiscuity and being regressive,” says Anand Sinha, country director of PSP-One. GVL Narasimha Rao, managing director of Development & Research Services, an agency that recently conducted usage studies in UP and MP for the UK government’s DFID, says, “In UP, the second largest market in the country after Punjab, condoms are seen as a tool for preventing pregnancies. Most people regard HIV/AIDS as an urban phenomenon.”

The market is looking up — but only just

“Things are a bit better because everyone in the business is being proactive about marketing,” says PSP-One’s Sinha. Last year the market’s volume grew 15 per cent. The National Family Health Survey III (2006) showed a usage of 7.1 per cent among the ‘eligible couples’ of the country; NFHS II (1998) had reported the same at 5.3 per cent. And how do you make men learn the ropes of putting on a condom? Organise a condom-wearing contest, which is what organisations like Humsafar Trust does. Or promote condom art and other non-sexual uses of the product to remove the stigma that is attached to it, as does Dr Akash Gulalia’s Condom Project. NACO is putting together a team of social marketers to suggest ways of reaching the farthest corners of the country. Necessity, too, is mothering other inventions. Giving in to gay rights groups’ demand for thicker-walled, better-lubricated condoms, NACO is trying to procure and distribute some.

“We know people are having sex,” says Kavi, “We are not judging them; only asking them to be careful — because if they aren’t, they may end up dead.

With inputs from Aditya Ghosh

First Published: Jul 29, 2007 00:18 IST