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Karnataka police formulate a workplace policy on HIV/AIDS

The Karnataka State Police has become the first state police department in India to formally unveil a comprehensive and detailed Workplace Policy on HIV/AIDS. But will it work on the ground, queries Deepanjali Bhas

Even as debates rage on the actual number of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in India, the Karnataka State Police (KSP) became the first state police department in India to formally unveil a comprehensive and detailed Workplace Policy on HIV/AIDS, in April 2007.

The guiding principles of this policy are:

  • Employees living with HIV/AIDS have the same rights and obligations as all staff members, and they will be protected against all forms of discrimination based on their HIV status.
  • Minimise the possibility of HIV infection and transmission among staff members and their families.

The policy document adds that no person with HIV or AIDS will be unfairly discriminated against within the employment relationship or within any employment policy or practice, including with regard to recruitment procedures, advertising and selection criteria, appointments and the appointment process, job classification or grading, remuneration, employment benefits and terms and conditions of employment, welfare schemes, the workplace and facilities, occupational health and safety, training and development, performance evaluation systems, promotions, transfers and demotions, disciplinary measures short of dismissal, and termination of services.

The formulation of this policy is a commendable step that could prove to be a model for police departments in other states as well; Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra , Manipur and Nagaland have already shown an interest in drafting a similar policy. And yet, when police personnel from police stations in Bangalore were randomly quizzed about their own department's policy, they did not have a clue! Will this be yet another example of a good effort on paper that fails to be implemented on the ground?

Although the Mumbai police department announced a one-page policy in 2004, the KSP document is the first extensive document clearly laying out the guiding principles, rights of personnel diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and grievance redressal mechanisms. As S T Ramesh, ADGP (Prisons), who, as ADGP (Recruitment and Training) last year was instrumental in forging a consensus on developing a policy, says: "The experience was new and marked a realisation of the high levels of risk that police personnel face in their job."

An International Labour Organisation (ILO) study, conducted in four Indian states by Networks of People Living With HIV/AIDS, noted that discrimination at the workplace could be higher than the reported 6.1%, considering that many PLWHA do not disclose their status for fear of losing their job. The study noted that HIV-positive people are often compelled to leave their jobs on account of harassment such as denial of promotions, forced voluntary retirement, and ostracisation by co-workers.

As work profiles go, police department staff are at extremely high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Exposure to blood is routine for constables and officials, and this, coupled with high-risk behaviour through unsafe sexual practices and long periods of time spent away from home increases their risk.

The first case that brought the issue of Stigma and Discrimination (S&D) in the police department into focus in Karnataka was when Constable Ramesh Rao from Shimoga district was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1999. Rao was dismissed from the force after having secured an appointment. This was in accordance with a 1994 state police department circular stating that the department could not hire persons diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Rao approached the Karnataka Administrative Tribunal (KAT) with a petition demanding reinstatement, which too was initially rejected. He got his job back only after a seven-year-long legal battle when the KAT ruled, in August 2005, that he should be reappointed and paid for the seven-year period.

Rao says that being told that he would not be appointed constable due to his HIV-positive status was a double blow. After being dismissed he was forced to take up work in a private organisation.

Rao's problems did not end here. The police department, citing the Karnataka Pay and Promotion Policy, decided to pay him only his basic salary for the seven years, minus travel and dearness allowance which constituted his full salary. Lawyers Collective has drafted a reply to the police department pointing out that this is not in keeping with the KAT order that stated that Rao should receive his full salary for the seven-year period.

As Rajkumar, advocacy officer, Lawyers Collective, the organisation that has been fighting Rao's case since 2004, says: "This was not just about the legalities of a case, it was about the dignity of a person." He points out that even in an area as sensitive as the concerns of PLWHA, petitions like Rao's are considered acts of indiscipline within the police force.

It was Constella Futures that, as part of its Essential Advocacy Project, took the lead in initiating meetings and discussions on the need for a workplace policy in the KSP. In association with other organisations working with HIV/AIDS -- the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust, Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society, Karnataka Network of Positive People, UNAIDS, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- a working group was formed with representation from the KSP that included Constable Rao.

Sumathi Subramaniam, head of advocacy, Constella Futures, says: "Getting a formal commitment like this policy is like getting a window to this space of fighting S&D."

There were several complications, however, one of them being the issue of pre-recruitment testing. After clarifications were obtained that this was of no consequence to other fitness requirements and was discriminatory, the need for the clause was dismissed. Subramaniam notes that the process of drafting the KSP policy marked a shift in mindset and was a big leap for officers who realised the role the police department has to play in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Gaps and concerns: From ensuring confidentiality to the challenge of implementation

Under the policy, a nodal officer of the rank of superintendent of police has been appointed in all districts of Karnataka for grievance redressal. Training and sensitisation of staff and faculty is also currently underway.

Although the policy, which is drafted along international lines, is a step in the right direction, a number of serious issues remain. The most obvious is the challenge of implementation, a concern echoed by several police officers and experts in the field.

S Mohammed Afsar, technical specialist (HIV/AIDS), South Asia, and national programme coordinator, ILO, appreciates the fact that the KSP policy is in keeping with the ILO's principles, and that there has been a recognition of the vulnerability of the police force to HIV/AIDS as well as its responsibility. But, he points out, its translation from theory into practice will be difficult.

He admits that the fact that the director-general of police has signed the policy is an advantage, as it is then considered binding. But for any policy to be effective there has to be a core committee to review its implementation. This has not yet been done.

As some KSP officials say, a major drawback is that as of now there is no provision for medical claim reimbursement for HIV/AIDS, whereas expenses incurred for tuberculosis and cancer-related testing can be claimed. In this context, confidentiality itself becomes difficult to ensure, for when medical claims are sent for approval there is an entire chain of people who see the files which have the names clearly mentioned. Maintaining confidentiality then, and preventing S&D, will be impossible unless the current system is modified with employee number codes.

Afsar, who supports the drafting of such polices in corporate houses and the public sector, says that two-thirds of people do invariably get to know about an HIV-positive co-worker's status. Ensuring absolute confidentiality is difficult as it has to be balanced against care and support needs. "This makes it a 'shared confidentiality', which is why sensitising people at all levels in an organisation is important, not just at the shop floor or middle-rung level," he says. The ILO is now commissioning a study to assess the implementation of policies in organisations where they are in place, and identify bottlenecks.

Further, in the absence of a state government policy to prevent S&D against PLWHA, the KSP policy's effectiveness on the ground is debatable. As KSP officials say, the department is a part of the government and cannot function in isolation. Afsar notes that in the case of PSUs and government departments, legislation in this regard could provoke stronger action.

There is also a strongly held view among senior police officers that awareness levels on HIV/AIDS must be boosted across the board, from officers of the highest rank to the lowest. This in itself is a challenge, given that it will bring sex and sexuality issues out into the open.

The existing stigma and disinterest is so great that the actual number of people infected with HIV/AIDS in the KSP has not yet been documented. Media reports in 2004, quoting a senior police officer, stated that nearly 400 of the 40,000-strong Mumbai police force are HIV-positive.

Sector experts and police officers say that the police force is, in a sense, more conservative than society at large; it tends to have a more rigid viewpoint on most issues. The disciplined nature of the force makes even issues like pre-recruitment testing for HIV/AIDS subject to heated debate, be it in the KSP or Mumbai where NGOs, in 2004, condemned a move by the Mumbai police to make HIV testing mandatory.

Police officers say that it is likely that, on hearing about such a policy, there will be some initial confusion in the ranks that would require clarification. They hope the proposed training sessions will help clear doubts. Rao admits that most of his colleagues in the constabulary do not know much about HIV/AIDS; even among the senior officers there are some who are insensitive to the needs of PLWHA.

A dissemination process is currently underway, with copies of the printed policy dispatched to all districts in Karnataka. It will soon also be on the KSP website.

Interestingly, the last six-seven years have seen a lot of activity on the HIV/AIDS workplace policy front in India, says Afsar. While most corporate houses have been emulating global best practices, PSUs like Steel Authority of India Ltd, BEST, Mumbai Port Trust and Goa Ship Yard have also joined the ranks. He notes that, compared to most countries in Asia, India is doing much better in this regard but, given the sheer size of the country's working population, more advocacy efforts are required to boost these initiatives.

Towards a more inclusive audience

Training and sensitisation are keywords in the battle against stigma and discrimination, a continuous effort to dispel myths and increase awareness about HIV/AIDS. Organisations working in the sector plan regular training sessions for those who are perceived to be the most important decision-makers, at the highest level and on the ground. But, experts say, training alone does not translate into actual attitudinal change.

While Sumathi believes that the biggest challenge in framing the policy was getting a formal commitment to this first-of-its-kind document, and that the support of the leadership environment in the KSP was a big advantage, how attempts at behavioural change actually play out on the ground is a concern. Constella Futures is working for change in the police training curriculum, which will happen gradually, so that HIV/AIDS gets into the framework of training at the recruitment stage. Among others, an HIV/AIDS training course for the staff and faculty at the Karnataka Police Academy , Mysore , was conducted in June 2007, and an intensive Training of Trainers (ToT) module will be taken up in the next few months. The KSP's Unicef-funded Gender Sensitisation and People-friendly Police Project will also incorporate a module on HIV/AIDS.

Nevertheless, lawyers like Rajkumar sound a more cynical note. He believes the entire criminal justice system in India has to be overhauled. Attitudinal change is crucial, and while change can be seen at higher levels of government it is seriously lacking at the crucial middle and lower levels. Rajkumar points out that administrative-level personnel, who are mostly ignored in the sensitisation programmes, are often the most prejudiced and judgmental, blocking the provision of essential services to PLWHA . Across-the-board sensitisation is clearly the need of the hour.

In light of this, organisations working in the HIV/AIDS sector and advocating the rights of PLWHA need to go beyond regular training and sensitisation modules, creating new avenues and a more inclusive audience for sensitisation.

(Deepanjali Bhas is a development communications specialist who was previously a journalist with The Times of India)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007

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