Millennium Post

Fighting AIDS in the Arabian Sea

There is a village called Bada in India. This village decided to make HIV test mandatory for solemnising marriage. This decision came more than two decades ago. Even in urban and metro population of India, awareness of this menace was minimal at that point of time. People hardly talked about this and it was more of a taboo in developed societies too. It was the same case world over. But, Bada and its villagers were progressive and much ahead of the time.

Other 10 villages surrounding Bada also followed the suit and made HIV negative report mandatory for both, bride and the groom, for registering their marriage. Bada and neighbouring villages are not part of our developed metro cities. These 11 villages are there in the Arabian Sea, about 250 miles from the coast of Calicutt. I think it is appropriate to clarify that this was not a government policy initiative, nor it was a one time propaganda affair of any NGO. This was peoples’ initiative which is still unnoticed.

If this little fact does not surprise you, it will definitely come as a shock to some fraction of our society that all these 11 villages have cent per cent Muslim population. Yes, Bada and other 11 villages form Minicoy Island come under the union territory of Lakshadweep.

People of Minicoy are globetrotters since time immemorial. Seamen of Minicoy are regarded best in their category in marine history. Having born in Minicoy Island is one of the most desirable qualifications for getting recruited into shipping industry. This is also regarded as the most desirous quality for the grooms in Minicoy. People of Minicoy know about a lot of foreign languages and majority of the male population have seen large parts of this world. In olden days people from these islands used to come back home after four to five years, and sometimes after a decade too. In those days commuting to such distant island from major parts of the world was not easy. One curious impact of this poor connectivity was, that the population of this island remained almost static for centuries. It was in the early sixties of the 20th century when Rajlakshmi, Dhanalakshmi, Ashoka etc propelled population growth.

These were the ships which ferried seamen of Minicoy from major ports to their island more frequently.

Travel bring prosperity to the Minicoy Island and also, unfortunately, undesired troubles like AIDS as well. But, the Quadi of Minicoy took the boldest step, as religious guardian of the island, and made it mandatory to produce HIV negative certificate for marriage. Since it is a prerequisite, youth of Minicoy are cautious and it has certainly helped the population there.

The most eligible bachelor in this island is the one, who gets into the ship at an early age and starts sending handsome amount to his parents. The Quadi of Minicoy has also made it mandatory to produce the birth certificate of both the bride and the groom. This has made registration of birth compulsory in such a remote place and this also ensures compliance to the minimum age limit for the bride and the groom.

The society of Minicoy is always thinking. Muneer, a native physician of this island, says, ‘Threat of HIV infection does not end at marriage. Males travel even after marriage and they are vulnerable to this infection. It is in society’s interest that males are asked to produce HIV negative certificate after return from their every voyage.’ Look, Minicoy is constantly thinking much ahead without any fancy.

They do not possess best of the educational degrees, but they have the highest level of appreciation of challenges that our time is facing. I do not think that any society in this country, at least, has taken this menace as seriously as Minicoy.

The example of Minicoy is a big case study for health schemes in India for both the government as well as NGOs. There was lot to learn from their experience and their stories needed to be spread all over. But, you know what we did to them…! Health ministry of union government thought that people living so far from civilised world must be living with old ideas. They also, perhaps, thought of their religion and thought of introducing them to the urban and modern ideas of AIDS prevention. A very senior officer from the union health ministry, who visited this island, came with an idea to install ‘Condom Vending Machine’ in all the villages of Minicoy. If one takes pain to travel for three days with best modes of transport such as airplane, helicopter and ship and reach Minicoy and see the village system, will he/she understand about the disrespect for the people of this island by implementing such schemes. As expected, people of Minicoy protested against such proposals and put their reasons against it and with great displeasure that officer decided not to impose the idea of ‘Centre’ on this island. That officer, though, must have felt pity for the ‘ignorant’ and ‘agitated’ people of Minicoy. We ought to learn a lot from the experiments by the people of Minicoy, rather than imposing our stationary urban ideas on them.

Akilesh Jha is a civil servant. The views expresssed are his own.
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