Ulhas buys condoms for whom?

“Are you sure you want to shake hands with them?” demanded Dr. Vijay Pawar, CSR coordinator for Mahindra Logistics, while entering the Nasik District Hospital on a rain-hit July 2013 morning. I nodded.

HIV/AIDS is not an infectious disease, I knew. It has nothing to do with the most-watched Hindi actress, Shabana Azmi TV promo that ran for decades on the state-run Doordarshan. I was sure Dr. Pawar (not a physician, but holding a doctorate in some social science discipline) knows this. Perhaps he felt I was unaware.

We were on a road trip from Mumbai to Nagpur to identify villages to adopt on this route by his company, under the leadership of Pirojshaw Sarkari then. On Day two, we were in Nasik, and the hospital was one of the spots we decided to visit, check and meet long-haul truck drivers undergoing treatment for whatever illness. Luckily, thanks to the cooperative Chief Medical Officer, there were a few driver-patients.

After interacting with some drivers with broken limbs with their plastered legs hung from standees on the second floor of the spacious hospital, we were led to the HIV/AIDS clinic. Two drivers undergoing treatment were present as part of their routine visits. With some persuading by the physicians, they opened up, admitting their unsafe sex practices en route of their working life and the resultant loss of earning capacity and the social stigma. We were denied permission to photograph them nor sharing of contact details, including names. HIV/AIDS robbed the livelihood of long-haul truck drivers until the government woke up to set up the National Aids Coordination Organisation (NACO) under the Ministry of Health decades ago.

Talking about NACO brought back memories of interaction with NACO officials in Janpath, Delhi headquarters, in early 2011. During the meeting with the then deputy director general — Mr. Saxsena, if my memory serves right — in his spacious cabin surrounded by his colleagues, he agreed to help me spread the safe sex message among the long-haul truck drivers on the highways I would be meeting and utilize the opportunity to distribute condoms for safe sex practices.

Sex, like water and air, is quintessential for healthy living. There can be no two opinions on that score. The NACO chief quipped as I left his office: “Hope these condoms are not for personal use!” What a sense of humor.

On the maiden truck trip from Chennai to Gurgaon (2,600km distance) in Mercurio Pallia Logistics car carrier with ten units of Hyundai’s i10 passenger cars in November 2010, I ran into a bunch of truck drivers in Chinchwad and the talk on sex practices was inevitable. One of them posed a tricky question: “Why us? Have you heard elephants, horses, and bulls using condom for sex?” I was puzzled for a while before I could counter him that for animals, sex is seasonal.

A few years later, on a road trip from Nagpur to Pune along with Ulhas Ambegaonkar, CEO of truckadda.com, we halted at Aurangabad, Maharashtra, on December 1, which happens to be World Aids Day. Aware that Aurangabad hosts the huge Skoda automotive plant, we hit upon the idea of meeting truck drivers waiting outside the plant to unload containers from Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, Mumbai, or to load cars for dealer points.

We halted at a pharmacy to buy a few cartons of condoms for distribution among truck drivers. The pharmacist’s eyes shot up when he heard our request for a few cartons, not one or two packs. We explained our mission, and he had a hearty laugh. At the open parking yard, senior and married drivers indulged leg pulling the recently married truck drivers.

We kept hearing that on the highway trucker dhabas, the free distribution of condoms was peaking. Good or bad? No idea. In 2015, I, along with Selvan Dasaraj, another ex-Mahindra Logistics senior executive, managed a truckers’ dhaba in Sonepat, Haryana. One day, Dasaraj questioned the rationale behind such brisk disappearance of condoms at dhabas. The driver responded, “We definitely take many condoms not for safe sex but to fix leaky tubes in the truck. These condoms are free and the best quick solution until we reach mechanic outlet.”

Another driver interjected to claim that he takes condoms for his kids to use as balloons.

By the way, today’s long-haul truck drivers are aware of the pitfalls of unsafe sex. So, repeating that they are the carriers of HIV/AIDS is unwarranted. That saga with the Vijayawada belt being the epicenter of spreading the dreaded HIV/AIDS is history. The away-from-home syndrome is unlikely to vanish, even if the National Logistics Policy-promoted multimodal mode of transport giving prominence to rail over road kicks in large measuire. Truck drivers cannot be converted to sainthood and asked to abandon sex. But safe sex is vital for the health of the nation.

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