Kavita Ayyagari, Project Director, Challenge TB, India: How innovation and partnerships are confronting TB in India

Kavita Ayyagari joined The Union in 2015 with experience working in the profit and non-profit sectors, including periods working in advertising, consulting for The World Bank and project management for Save the Children in India. These insights into both private and public sectors as well as her passion for how advocacy and communications can effect change, have informed her leadership of the Challenge TB project.  

 “Tuberculosis (TB) is a huge public health challenge in India. When I joined The Union, I wanted to do something that makes a difference to TB prevention and care. The Challenge TB project is doing exactly that, through national advocacy and increasing visibility and engagement on TB.”

Under Challenge TB, The Union is implementing The Call to Action for TB-Free India. By mobilising a diverse range of stakeholders throughout the country, the aim is to create the momentum capable of sustaining high-level domestic and international commitment to eradicate TB in India for good. 

It is a critical campaign in a critical situation. India carries the world’s highest TB burden, with latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating that 480,000 people died of TB in India in 2015.  

As Challenge TB India’s Project Director, Kavita is responsible for overseeing strategy and engagement with partners crucial to this call to action. These range from business and industry engagement to the private health sector, research and academia, parliamentarians, civil society, celebrities and the media. She also manages the communication and outreach campaigns, working with a team that “is smart and talented”.

“The project is truly innovative. By having communications and advocacy at its core, it has, through some innovative campaigning, opened doors and allowed us to access various influential people who can help get the word out more widely about TB.

“Raising awareness is crucial – awareness of prevention, diagnosis, care, treatment – and that TB can kill if these elements are not adhered to.”

The campaign has had some remarkable successes, including gaining a commitment to run TB awareness activities from Rotary India’s National TB Committee, that is being scaled across some 3,500 clubs throughout the country.

The campaign has also seen household names use their considerable influence to promote messages about TB and its impact. Amitabh Bachchan, the award-winning Indian film actor – and a TB survivor has done much to increase awareness of TB and tackle stigma, one of the biggest issues associated with the disease in India.  His recorded video message, where he states that “If by saying I have had TB can help anybody, then I will say I am a TB survivor”, makes the critical point that TB can – and does - affect anyone. 

Kavita says, “His involvement has enabled us to demonstrate that anyone can get TB. Given that discrimination around the disease is rife, this is a critical message. Coming from Mr. Bachchan, it has particular credibility and impact.” 

The Call to Action For a TB-Free India is already seeing the results of such support. As well as the increase in visibility for TB in India’s major media outlets as an issue that needs urgent attention, the project has facilitated more than US$3 million investment for TB from private resources and generated 23 government and corporate partnerships for improving TB services in the community.

Just this month saw the historic launch of the India TB Caucus – over 30 parliamentarians met and signed a pledge to accelerate progress towards eradicating TB in India and confronting the issues of stigma and social isolation. 

For Kavita, these achievements are both motivating and challenging. “I’m proud of the results we have achieved so far. But it’s a constant challenge. Dealing with many stakeholders with different perspectives and viewpoints is not easy. But this campaign has touched so many people and brought on board new partners from new sectors who, because of our outreach, have committed time, resources and support to combat TB in India. That is extremely motivating.”

Kavita says that, for her, it is important to be inspired by figures working in similar fields. “I started my journey at CRY - Child Rights and You - and I came to know about Rippan Kapur, the founder. He is quoted as saying that ‘what each of us can do, we must do… to make a difference in a child’s life.’ CRY was my entry into the international development world and an important phase as I learnt that if you touch people’s hearts and explain to them the ways in which they can get involved and contribute, then they do.”

On the future, Kavita comments, “We wanted to start a movement for a TB-free India and I believe we have done that. I hope that the momentum we have achieved will continue. But there’s a lot of work still to be done. There’s only one way to do it, through action. You can talk, listen and read, but you need to act. As we say here, you need to let the rubber meet the road…” 

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