MUMBAI, India, Sep 26 (IPS) - Under the shade of a large tree,
a group of men drink tea and play cards at the end of their
long journeys to India's largest truck terminus, in this
They are soon joined by a young woman who begins asking them
questions that they have got used to by now.
"Does a mosquito bite cause AIDS? " she asks, and all of them
nod that it does. "What can you do if you get HIV?" she asks
"Commit suicide," mutters one of the men.
This is an AIDS education class in progress for truck drivers
at the Cotton Green truck terminus where, every day, some 5,000
trucks loaded with goods arrive from across the country.
The classes were begun three years ago by the non-governmental
organisation (NGO), Population Services International (PSI).
According to Arupa Shukla, who was asking the questions and
heads the PSI project, long-distance truck drivers are more
vulnerable to the AIDS virus because they travel a lot, often
not going home for months on end.
Many of the drivers have come forward for voluntary HIV tests.
About 10 percent of the 800 drivers tested so far, have turned
out to be HIV- positive, she says.
While most of the drivers may not visit commercial sex workers,
they do have casual sex and see no risk in this, she adds.
The NGO has contacted 65,000 truck drivers so far and has
treated more than 6,000 of them for various ailments. It also
works in another big truck terminus in Mumbai, where an
estimated 2,000 trucks arrive every day.
The Indian government's National Aids Control Organisation,
better known by its acronym NACO, is backing similar projects
in other big cities.
The British government's Department for International
Development (DFID) is also funding AIDS education schemes for
long-distance truck drivers in India. Some of these are located
close to the India-Bangladesh and India-Nepal borders.
"We have never heard of AIDS. What do we have to do with
condoms, we all are married. We don't go to other women," says
one of the drivers. Most of the truck drivers here come here
from the western coastal state of Gujarat, western Rajasthan
and northern Haryana.
During one of the AIDS education sessions, the drivers flip
through pamphlets given by PSI volunteers. Many of them said
they did not use condoms. "Mazaa nahin aata," (it is not fun),
they answer in chorus, when asked why.
Most of them came to know about AIDS only after coming to
Mumbai. There is little information available back at their
homes in the small towns of India, they say.
A driver from Rajasthan says that HIV destroys the body's
capacity to fight disease and is caused by unprotected sex with
a woman who is infected.
Shukla explains to them, using flip charts, how the AIDS virus
spreads and gives a demonstration of how condoms must be used.
A PSI doctor will later visit the terminus to advise those with
any ailment. Free medicines are given to the patients.
The truck drivers rarely visit hospitals and instead, seek the
help of quacks and home remedies to cure sexually-transmitted
diseases, she says.
The drivers are also shown short films on HIV and condom use in
a recreation room, which was set up by the terminus
authorities. Condom vending machines at the terminus dispense a
piece for a rupee (less than three U.S. cents) each.
As the day progresses, the PSI volunteers, identifiable by
their lemon yellow jackets, fan out across the sprawling
terminus, stopping by at trucks where drivers and their helpers
are cleaning the vehicles.
Prakash Singh, another truck driver from Rajasthan, says he has
heard about AIDS but is not sure how it is caused.
A PSI survey of long-distance truck drivers last year, found
that almost a fifth of them never used condoms, while another
70 percent, preferred not to use these.
The investigation, which covered 200 truck drivers from 13
states, found that only four out of 10 drivers knew that there
was no cure for AIDS.
Many drivers at the Mumbai terminus say they do not know where
condoms are available and how these can protect them from HIV.
"We don't read roadside hoardings and many of us don't even
read newspapers, so we don't know about this disease," says
Pappu Khan, who works as cleaner at the terminus.
"I don't visit the red-light area, but many of the men head
straight for that place once they get here. Now because of PSI
they are hesitant as they are afraid of getting AIDS," he adds.
According to Shukla, most AIDS education projects for truck
drivers are located along highways, where the "attention
levels" of the drivers are very low.
"At the terminus, they are relaxed and give you quality time,
and they retain more of the messages imparted to them," she
says. The NGO tries to maintain contact with the same groups of
truck drivers who make repeated visits to the city.