In a significant development, the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday passed the HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Control) Bill, which ensures equal rights to education and jobs for people living with HIV and AIDS. It is a significant piece of legislation, considering India has the third-highest number of people living with HIV in the world, accounting for an estimated 21 lakh people. For the most part, it is a positive piece of legislation. Not all individuals diagnosed with this deadly disease are eligible for free antiretroviral drugs.
Only those with a CD4 count fewer than 250 units are given free treatment under the government programme monitored by the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO). "Now, patients with a CD4 count less than 500 can receive free treatment," Health Minister JP Nadda said. It also prohibits the authorities of various institutions from forcing people to undergo HIV tests for employment or education. The Bill clearly states that "no person shall be compelled to disclose his HIV status except with his informed consent, and if required, by a court order", besides compelling organisations that work with HIV-positive individuals to adopt strict data protection measures.
During a debate in Upper House, however, members cutting across party lines had suggested amendments to Section 14 (1) of the Bill, which places an obligation on the State governments to provide treatment only "as far as possible". Legal experts contend that the phrase "as far as possible" makes the provision weak and open to interpretation, despite Nadda's verbal assurance that no one will be denied treatment. It is apparent that the state is under no legal obligation to act if any patient is denied treatment. Mere assurances from the Health Minister will not suffice.