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.
ery week we assemble in a nearby park where we give them basic information about the disease. These barbers are told about everything, right from the causes, prevention, to where to get blood tests done.
"So many times they send people to us for counselling," said Pal.
Right in front of the main Lajpat Nagar market's bike stand is Dilshad, 40, who has been a barber for 20 years.
"I have made it a point to tell at least 10 customers about the disease daily." He said initially he was a bit shy about talking to his customers on HIV/AIDS or giving them condoms, but no more.
"Now my awareness level has increased and I am proud of my campaign to tell others about the silent killer," said Dilshad. Through sexual contact, blood transfusion or use of infected needles - he can rattle off the many ways in which HIV is transmitted.
He said while many of his customers seemed to have heard of the disease, they often did not know where to go for blood tests. The barbers themselves make sure they change the razor blade they use for each customer.
Just a few yards from Dilshad's open saloon is Habib, 64, who is busy giving a shave to a customer, and he too feels what he is doing is unparalleled work, as he is not paid for it.
"I feel great helping someone. At least, we are saving many lives by passing on the message. When we were young, things were much safer. But with time everything has changed."
Asked if he feels shy talking to youngsters about the disease, Habib said: "Why should I? Being an elder, it's my duty to teach right things to the youth. But, yeah, with the younger lots I start the topic with an obscene joke to open them up!"
Happy with the response in Lajpat Nagar, the NGO has expanded the project to Sangam Vihar in south Delhi.
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