By Yogesh Vajpeyi
1 December 2007, New Delhi: World AIDS Day acquired a special significance for India as the Red Ribbon Express (RRE) rolled out the railway tracks on a year-long journey across the country on Saturday.
Flagging off the world's largest mass mobilization campaign, Chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance ruling India, Sonia Gandhi said, "No disease has had such a catastrophic impact on the lives of so many millions in so short a time," she said. "On this day we must resolve to do everything we can, in whatever manner, to save lives and reach out to all those who are living with this infection".
She expressed her appreciation to the youth volunteers and UNICEF for the unique initiative.
Sonia Gandhi was accompanied by Union Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav and Union Health Minister Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss at the high-profile launch event at New Delhi's Safdarjung Railway Station, from where the RRE started its journey to reach Alwar Station in Rajasthan for its fist halt on Sunday.
It is a landmark initiative and the largest mass mobilization effort that has been undertaken anywhere in the world. In its year-long journey, the train will halt at 180 stations and will cover more than 50,000 villages across India under its outreach component consisting of cycles and bus rallies.
Equipped with innovative and interactive communication devices, the seven-coach train will traverse over 27,000 km making 180 halts, covering 166 districts across the country, reaching out to millions of people in over 50,000 villages for scaling up ground level mobilization activities.
In his welcome address, Health Minister Dr. Ramadoss announced that India had already achieved the target of reaching 100,000 persons with anti-retroviral therapy. "We are now getting ready to provide second-line treatment to those who have or may have developed resistance to first-line drugs," he announced. Pledging his ministry's full support to the RRE Project, Railway Minister Mr. Lalu Prasad said the Indian Rail network is the ideal route to roll-out a mass mobilization initiative intended to reach every corner of the nation.
"We are proud to be partners in this initiative that is unprecedented in its scale and well conceived in its objective of raising awareness against the HIV epidemic," he added.
Conceived by Rajiv Gandhi Foundation and implemented by the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), the Red Ribbon Express is a multi-sectoral project aimed at spreading awareness on HIV, promoting safe behavioural practices and fighting stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV.
The Ministry of Railways, the Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and UNICEF are the other main partners in this initiative.
In a statement on the occasion, Dr. Gianni Murzi, Representative, a.i, UNICEF noted that the massive campaign relied on a network of young and well-trained communicators. "I am confident that 2008 is the year that India will talk AIDS – thanks to the Red Ribbon Express”.
This multi-sectoral initiative on wheels, it is envisaged, will bring together peoples' representatives, programme functionaries, opinion leaders, media, civil society and citizens to offer a coordinated response to the HIV epidemic in India.
Over the last six months, more than 500 persons from the government and partner agencies have worked round the clock to make RRE a reality.
The special train has seven coaches, equipped with educational material, primarily on HIV/AIDS, interactive touch screens and 3-D models, PPTCT services in the context of RCH II, HIV-TB co-infection, an LCD projector and platform for folk performances, counseling cabins and two doctors' cabins for providing counselling and syndromic treatment for STI and RTI cases, an office, dining area and pantry.
A team of 60 specially trained volunteers of the Nehru Yuva Kendra are traveling with the train to create and train a vast human resource base along the train route. Bicycle and bus caravans will travel along with the train to cover the far-flung areas.
During halts, cultural troupes traveling in the train will disperse in six groups to selected villages in the districts. Over 30,000 local cultural performances reaching out to more than 30 million people are scheduled to be witnessed by rural population across 24 states in nine languages.