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Snippy haircuts, snappier AIDS lessons from barbers

Under the shade of a tree or by the side of a bus stand, they snap up conversations with customers while giving them a shave or a haircut. But the barbers // aren't quite indulging in idle chitchat: they are talking HIV/AIDS.

In a novel initiative, 85 roadside barbers in the busy commercialised neighbourhood of Lajpat Nagar in south Delhi are spreading awareness about the disease and even distributing condoms to their clients every day.

Ram Kumar, 25, runs a typical Indian open-air salon - a makeshift shop with little more than a mirror and chair as infrastructure - by a bus stand.

"I have been distributing condoms and pamphlets to my customers for the last one year. Those who know about this scheme ask us about the condoms whenever they need it.

"Or else on the pretext of something we initiate the talk and ask them if they require condoms." Kumar on an average distributes 15 packs of condoms a week.

The barbers make sure there are stickers in Hindi or English - dispensing information about how HIV/AIDs spreads or can be prevented - stuck to the chair or mirror, knowing it will arouse the curiosity of the customer.

Rickshaw-pullers and labourers, mostly migrants, who constitute a high risk HIV/AIDS category, frequent these shops. So the project is an ideal way to reach out to them.

The "Barbers Intervention Programme" was formally started in March this year and is sponsored by the Swiss NGO Francois-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB-India). There are 5.1 million patients of the disease in India - the second highest incidence in the world after South Africa.

"We started the programme in 2001 as a pilot project and after receiving a positive response decided to begin it in a more organised way. We launched it full-fledged in Lajpat Nagar," said Manisha Pal, project coordinator of FXB-India.

So far, 13,000 packs of condoms have been distributed through these barbers.

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