Shanthi, a daily wage labourer from an areca nut factory in a village near Perambalur in central Tamil Nadu, spends Rs. 125 and switches three buses to travel about 100 km to come to the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Government Hospital here thrice a month.

She needs to pick up medicines that are vital to prolong her life as a HIV-positive person.

However, she does not use the free bus pass that she is eligible for. Though many would be willing to jump at free public transport, thousands of people living with HIV like Shanthi decline the benefit as they are subjected to public embarrassment on disclosure of their health status.

Two years ago, the Tamil Nadu government launched free bus passes for people living with HIV-AIDS and taking anti-retro viral therapy (ART) to ensure that they do not discontinue treatment vital for survival. The bus passes can be used four times a month to travel from the place of residence to the ART centre.

Though there are close to 3,500 HIV-positive persons from all over central Tamil Nadu taking treatment in Tiruchi, fewer than 800 bus passes have been issued since the benefit was introduced. “We have more than 2,000 passes in hand, but there are no takers for the passes,” said a counsellor at the ART centre at the Government Hospital here. “We have briefed them on the benefits, but they turn it down.”

Moreover, bus conductors refuse to accept the pass or ask passengers to pay up, says Rajan, a member of a network of ‘positive’ people. “I was asked to get down from the bus as I refused to pay up. When I stood my ground, I was manhandled by the conductor.”

Embarrassing questions

It is often a case of embarrassment. “They ask us questions like what the purpose is and why we need it when we look healthy. How can I say I have AIDS in a bus full of people, many of whom are my neighbours?” asks Shanthi.

The passes carry a Red Ribbon symbol, which many object to, and details of the patients’ treatment centre. Though ART centres are located in their neighbourhood, many travel to far away centres in an attempt at keeping their HIV status a secret from their kith and kin. But such queries let the cat out of the bag. “I do not want the pass if it means only insults,” says Latha, a labourer, with a mentally challenged husband.

Officials at the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation told The Hindu that a circular was issued a year ago to all conductors and drivers, advising them to remain discreet about the status of these passengers. Yet, a senior official concedes that there is not much awareness. Activists stress that sensitising transport officials can help HIV-positive persons avail themselves of the benefit they are entitled to.

(*Names of HIV-positive persons have been changed)