By Nandini Kapoor, Community Support Adviser, UNAIDS Country Office for India
The death of Smarajit Jana has left us shaken. True to his nature, he fought COVID-19 valiantly, but sadly the champion for the response to HIV succumbed to the coronavirus.
How do you begin to describe Mr Jana? A medical doctor, a public health specialist, an epidemiologist, a researcher and academician, an ardent advocate for the response to HIV and the architect of India’s national HIV response for key populations, a champion of human rights and the dignity of sex workers, the founder of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) collective of sex workers, a winner of national and international honours and accolades, a distinguished voice in domestic and global forums, and much more.
A great leader, an incomparable professional and, above all, a human being par excellence, he gave voice to the most vulnerable and the most marginalized to ensure they were heard and their dignity respected. He touched innumerable lives. Words are not enough to capture the range of his work and the difference he made to so many lives. What he did is etched in the hearts of the lives he touched-with warmth, with love, with affection.
He was a man of science, with his heart firmly anchored in the community he served. He brought science to the community level simply and brilliantly. And the reverse was true-he could easily translate policy and science in simple words for the community to understand.
I first met Mr Jana when I joined UNAIDS 18 years ago. We had organized a meeting for key populations and invited representatives of DMSC, since it had been key to the sex worker movement in India. We were told that they would attend, but not without Mr Jana, their guide, mentor and father figure. That was the level of trust and confidence they had in him. He spoke for their rights and ensured that the reality in the field was brought to the meeting table.
His skill at listening to the community and overlaying what he heard with policy discourse helped to move community-friendly strategies as part of the national HIV response. His presence at every meeting was full of energy and passion.
I have had several conversations with Mr Jana on a range of programmatic issues-the changing nature of sex work, preexposure prophylaxis, collectivization, decriminalization and much more, and each conversation was a learning experience for me.
I will miss him, above all his sage counsel and mentoring. But he will live on-in the work that he did and in the hearts of the vast numbers he impacted.
Our prayers are with his family and the thousands of people whose lives he touched and made better. Om Shanti.