In a country where smallpox is still regarded in rural areas as divine retribution for past sins rather than a curable disease, widespread ignorance and prejudice about Aids should come as no surprise, writes Suchitra Behal.
Yet India is estimated to have more than 4 million HIV/Aids cases, and the numbers are rising. There has been little coordinated effort on the part of government and concerned agencies to warn people of the dangers or to inform them in a scientific manner about the disease. Social ostracism is rampant, and even hospitals routinely refuse to handle suspected cases.
Against this background, Deepak Phalgune's HIV/Aids awareness project at Pune University in western India has been a boon for university students and the local community. It is the first of its kind in any Indian university, and its success shows just how much such an effort was needed.
Launched in the late 1990s, the programme is aimed at not only informing students, but also providing free counselling and check-ups. It uses audio and visual aids and covers 300 colleges and approximately 300,000 students.
It has also helped to create awareness outside the campus.
Every first-year student has access to free health checkups on campus and lectures on health education - covering both community and personal health - smoking, alcoholism, drug addiction and chewing tobacco. Talks are given on sexually transmitted diseases. "We also have a helpline that provides counselling on HIV/Aids," Phalgune says.
The idea, he says, is to explain to students in simple language the causes of the disease, its symptoms and how it can be prevented. An equally important aim of the programme is to try to remove misconceptions and prejudices - the most common being that HIV/Aids can be contracted by mere physical contact. Its message is that HIV/Aids is preventable and that it is wrong to shun patients or treat them as untouchables.
Phalgune says the response to the programme has been "very good", and he is particularly happy about the popularity of the helpline, which, given the anonymity it provides, makes it easier for students to ask questions about sexuality. Every year, an estimated 100,000 students benefit from the programme, which also provides financial aid to needy students.