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'AIDS jeopardises India's progress'

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March 28, 2006 17:15 IST

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, president of the Global Business Coalition Against HIV/AIDS, has called AIDS the biggest problem of this century.

In a conversation with Assistant Managing Editor Archana Masih, Holbrooke, who served as President Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations, discusses the so-called cultural taboos that prevents Indians from discussing sexual health and the threat of AIDS undermining India's progress.

India has the second-largest HIV infections in the world. How is the disease being countered here?

India is a great country with a great future but if you look at the problems India has, there are so many immediate issues that have to be solved like water, electricity, roads, education and jobs.

When we say India has an AIDS problem, Indians tends to say 'Yes but there are other problems that are more urgent.' I understand that but if India does not deal with the AIDS problem, AIDS will undermine other achievements and will consume more resources needed to deal with the long- term problems.

The woman with India's toughest job

India has three choices -– recognise that it has a major crisis and deal with it early or wait till it gets late and gets more expensive to deal with. It is my view that AIDS is a huge problem that jeopardises India's progress. It is going to get worse if Indians continue to deny it by refusing to talk about it.

This government is much better than the previous one. I spoke about it to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and he was very committed but he himself said that we have a very long way to go and we must work hard on it.

Are Indian corporates not forthcoming enough in recognising the AIDS problem and contributing towards it like the Bill Gates Foundation and Clinton Foundation?

Tata Steel has taken the leadership under Ratan Tata himself and Tarun Das of the CII. The government should do more. India spends only 22 billion dollars a year on health for 1 billion people -- 22 dollars per person. So it is very difficult.

Is it treatment or prevention? If you focus on treatment the cost is limitless, if you focus on prevention you can do it at a much cheaper rate. The old cliché -- an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure -- has never been so true. But prevention requires detection and detection requires testing and sex education.

My friends in India keep saying that in India talking about sex is a cultural taboo. By the way if you watch Bollywood films you don't think sex is a cultural taboo. Because they are very sexy films so I don't know what they are talking about. I watched the Miss India contest and I didn't think sex was a cultural taboo.

But if it is a cultural taboo, my answer is -- you want to preserve the taboo, you'll destroy the culture. This is a life and death proposition, literally.