Trapped by a stigma disease

CHENNAI: A quarter century of campaigns in various media has done little to change societal attitude towards AIDS and HIV positive persons in India. People living with HIV lead a life as social rejects, facing stigma and discrimination, struggling for the most basic of rights. With the HIV/AIDS bill 2007 still pending, they have no legal recourse to fight the kind of discrimination they face in life, despite Article 14, 15, 16 of the Indian Constitution guaranteeing them right to equality in the public sphere.

Take Radhakrishnan, 41, who has been living with HIV for 15 years now. In January, his makeshift shack was set ablaze by his neighbours in Thirumani village near Chengalpattu, for no reason but that he and his wife Kantha are HIV+. The couple have returned to the demoralising rigmarole of trying to rent a house.

Radhakrishnan’s tryst with stigma began in 2008 when he led a team of HIV+ persons in a friendly cricket match against Chennai Corporation Ward members on World AIDS Day. “My landlord had seen me on TV that day and came to know that I am HIV+. He increased our rent from Rs 1,200 to Rs 2,000. We couldn’t afford the house, so we had to move out, he recalls.

Radhakrishnan runs the Kancheepurm District Network of positive people, which is a capacity building organisation of TANSACS and with Kantha is involved in HIV Advocacy. “Each time we participated in HIV-related protest, or spoke about HIV in the media, our landlords would ask us to vacate the house. After shifting house six times in two years, in January 2010, we were fed up. We have two children and so we decided to  build our own house, Radhakrishnan explains.

So that year, Radhakrishan identified a piece of porampokku land in Periyar Street, Indira Nagar in Thirumani Village, Chengalpet, and paid Rs 1 lakh to the person then occupying the land and paying panchayat taxes. But when Radhakrishnan applied to the village panchayat president Rajagopal for a No Objection Certificate, he had attached the couples HIV+ status certificates along with the other paperwork.

Rajagopal apparently told him, “You are a diseased person, you have HIV, and I don’t want you and your family to live inside the village, so go and find some land outside the village.”

“I went and requested him, explaining my situation, and for two months we did not do anything with the land,” Radhakrishnan says. After few months the couple put in a borewell and in mid-2010, a makeshift thatched structure. “The panchayat leader and some of his supporters then came and removed the thatched structure. This happened three times in a year, and after that we didn’t do   more work on the land,” he says. (When Express contacted Rajagopal, he refused to comment on the matter.)

But Radhakrishnan had also applied for a patta at the Kancheepuram Collectors office, and had filed a police complaint about the problems he was having with the panchayat president. “With great difficulty we put in all our savings and brought this little land in order to live in peace,” he explains.

In late 2010, the couple again raised a thatched structure, this time with brick walls, and moved in with their two daughters. Things were quiet for a while. Then on December 27, 2010, the panchayat leaders wife and some other women came to the house and said they didn’t want the family living in the village as they were HIV+. On January 11, when the family was asleep, the house was torched.

“We woke up to flames, smoke and heat coming from the roof. Luckily as the door was weak, we escaped unhurt except for a minor injury on my forehead,” he says.

This February, Radhakrishnan filed a petition on the matter in the Madras High Court. The court gave an order directing the district collector to give him a patta. But after six petitions to the collector, nothing has happened in this regard. Now, Radhakrishnan is a worried man – the family has been asked to vacate the house theyd been forced to rent after the accident.

To make matters worse, Radhakrishnan says his friends in TANSACS allege he is just trying to get some publicity. Radhakrishnan said, “I know some people who work with TANSCAS who say I am trying to get some publicity and make money out of this. But I am just sharing what happened to me and my family. I want to tell the world that this is the stigma people living with HIV have to handle. Meanwhile TANSACS wants us to believe that stigma has disappeared because of their awareness campaigns.”

Forty-year-old Daisy, who works for World Vision in HIV Advocacy, understands Radhakrishnans predicament. Having lived with HIV for 13 years now, she is considered an empowered face of HIV advocacy, speaking bravely of her HIV status on every podium. But when it comes to finding a house, this proud woman is forced to lie about her HIV status – in the past year alone she has been turned away from 14 different houses shed tried to rent because she is HIV+.

“I am not ashamed of my HIV status. I talk about it on every stage. But today I have become HIV- because I had to lie to people to get a house for rent. I live in constant fear of how long it will it be before the landlord comes to know about my status and asks me to vacate the house,” she says.

“If this is the state of affairs even for HIV+ people who are empowered enough to disclose their status, then imagine the plight of others. I don’t understand what kind of sensitisation the government is claiming to have done,” she says.

As if to underline her concerns, Ambika, who owns a house and is an otherwise liberal employed person says she would not rent out her house to a HIV+ person. “I know the mode of transmission. I know it wont affect us, but why take any risk by keeping them in your house?” she asks. Preetha another educated person is as hesitant. “I have to think about it. I am not too sure I would want to give them my house,” she says.


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