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‘Primitive’ management will ruin HIV prevention programme in India: UN envoy

New Delhi: New HIV infections in India could rise for the first time in more than a decade because states are mismanaging a prevention programme by delaying payments to health workers, the United Nations envoy for AIDS in Asia and the Pacific said.

India's efforts to fight HIV have for years centred around community-based programmes run for people at high risk of contracting the virus, such as sex workers and injecting drug users. The results won praise globally — annual new infections fell consistently and, overall, were reduced by more than half between 2000 and 2011.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February cut the central AIDS budget by a fifth and asked states to fill the gap, even though their poorly-run bureaucracies were already slow in releasing funds to their AIDS prevention units.

As a result, staff salaries have been delayed for months and prevention activities have slowed down. The decision was part of a wider strategy to decentralize social spending and focus central government resources on building roads and railways to boost economic growth.

In an interview with Reuters, the UN secretary general's special envoy for AIDS in Asia-Pacific, JVR Prasada Rao, warned "primitive" management by states would "ruin the programme".

"When the new infections start rising, all the good work that has been done will be washed away," said Rao, who said he based his view on interactions with several federal and state AIDS officials in the last six months.

Reuters reported in March that government data and letters obtained under right to information legislation showed state treasuries were delaying payments and thousands of health workers had gone unpaid for months.

An official at the federal AIDS control department, part of the health ministry that oversees the programme, said delays in states disbursing funds were still widespread, with payments in some cases three months late.

The AIDS control department official said there was a risk of a rise in new infections if the delays continue, but added such a scenario was at least a year away. The health ministry did not respond to Reuters' requests for comment on Rao's remarks.