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Lost Highway: AIDS and Truckers in India

Posted Dec 06 2005 12:00am

Saradh, 36, is a prostitute in Chilakaluripet, India, a southern town along the national highway. The town is a center for H.I.V. infection. Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

via NYTimes:
India Accelerating | An Epidemic Spreads
On India's Roads, Cargo and a Deadly Passenger
Published: December 6, 2005

NELAMANGALA, India - Hot water: 10 rupees. Cold water: 8 rupees. Toilet: 5 rupees.

Sex: no price specified on the bathhouse wall, but, as the condom painted there suggests, safe.

Sangeetha Hamam, a bathhouse, sits on the national highway near this gritty truck stop about nine miles north of Bangalore. Its mistress is Ranjeetha, a 28-year-old eunuch who lives as a woman. Her lipstick and black dress provide a touch of glamour in the small dark shack.

Her clients are not only truckers, but also Bangalore college students and other city residents. They know to look for sex at highway establishments geared toward truckers. Her customers - as many as 100 on Sundays for her and five other eunuchs - come for a "massage" and the anal sex that follows, but also for the anonymity the location confers.

Ranjeetha knows men will pay more for unprotected sex, but she calculates that the extra money is not worth the risk to her livelihood and life. She knows they can go elsewhere; there are some 45 bathhouses doubling as brothels near this truck stop. She also knows several eunuchs who have died of AIDS.

India has at least 5.1 million people living with H.I.V., the second highest number after South Africa. It is, by all accounts, at a critical stage: it can either prevent the further spread of infection, or watch a more generalized epidemic take hold. Global experts worry that India is both underspending on AIDS and undercounting its H.I.V. cases.

Its national highways are a conduit for the virus, passed by prostitutes and the truckers, migrants and locals who pay them, and brought home to unsuspecting wives in towns or villages. In its largest infrastructure project since independence, India is in the process of widening and upgrading those highways into a true interstate system. The effort will allow the roads to carry more traffic and freight than ever before. But some things are better left uncarried.

The national highways between New Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai, formerly Madras, and Mumbai run through at least six districts where H.I.V. prevalence is above 2.5 percent. Earlier this year, a New York Times reporter and a photographer drove the route, which has been nicknamed the Golden Quadrilateral. [read on...]

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