At 11 am on a Tuesday, a young woman puts in her token at an Automatic Fare Collection gate at Delhi’s Central Secretariat Metro Station and briskly begins walking towards Exit No. 4. She barely glances at a lone vending machine to her left, but then does a double take. With an incredulous look, she approaches the multi-purpose vending machine installed on April 30 by HLL Lifecare Ltd (HLL) in collaboration with Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC).
On array are goods you would not normally see in a vending machine. Between the water bottles and namkeen packets, and the deodorants and joint pain cream tubes and hair oil bottles, are colourful packets of condoms, for men and women, sanitary napkins and oral contraceptive pills, taking up most of the space.
In a bid to promote safe sex, HLL, a PSU of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and India’s largest manufacturer of condoms and oral contraceptive pills, associated itself with DMRC for this project and plans to install 25 such machines at 21 metro stations in the national capital.
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The machine, covered with advertisements for Moods, featuring happy couples, offers an assortment of condoms — ultra-thin, dotted, coffee, rose-scented, all night and ‘Velvet’ — all of which slide out with the drop of a coin or currency note. A pack of condoms for women costs Rs 100 and contains three pieces. A big pack of Moods costs Rs 78 while a smaller pack is for Rs 10.
Around noon, a newly-married couple — evident from the bangles on the woman’s arm —walk by. Spotting the machine, they point excitedly and giggle, but don’t buy anything. Reactions from other metro users vary from “Oh bhai, woh dekh, condom ki machine” to plain indifference.
Though the Central Secretariat metro station, catering to Central government employees, registers an average daily footfall of 2 lakh passengers or more, the machine looks lonesome standing near an exit used by only 4,000-5,000 people. “Approximately 16,000 to 17,000 people physically enter or exit the station,” says station manager Rajesh Sharma.
“The rest are interchange commuters who move from one platform to another.” Thus, the chances of the machine, located away from busy feet rushing to catch the next train, being used are few.
As the day goes on, a few glance at the condom vending machine before rushing away, including a 58-year-old bureaucrat who works in a building nearby.
Despite the reactions, Mohan Das Nayar, deputy general manager (vending business) with HLL, says the sales have been encouraging in the first week. According to him, once all the 25 machines have been installed, “awareness will increase because the machines will be more visible”.
Samita Devi, who is on gate duty for over eight hours a day, says she has seen very few people use the machine. “Things like this are for those who are ‘forward thinking’,” she says, promptly adding that she is one of them. The 28-year-old recalls seeing a young boy buy a Happy Days sanitary napkin (for Rs 10) thinking it was bread. Laughing, she says the boy looked at the object with confusion, till his mother took it away.
“So far, I have only seen people buy namkeen and beverages. People are too embarrassed to buy such items out in the open. Of course, I’m glad that there are sanitary napkins as a woman can have an emergency anytime,” Devi adds.
Pallavi Singh, a 24-year-old commuter who works for an NGO, welcomes the female condoms. “It is an empowerment tool for women to avoid unplanned pregnancies without having to depend on their partners.”
By mid-afternoon, the section which holds soda and water bottles in the condom machine has whittled down to a lone bottle. A DMRC ticket vending machine lies a few feet away and sees a lot more action.
Vinod Ahuja, a banker with Punjab National Bank in Jalandhar, stands near the machine waiting to pick up his 24-year-old daughter. Because of the scorching heat outside, he is waiting inside the air-conditioned station. Ahuja thinks the condom vending machine is a good idea to promote safe sex. “But it would have been better if it was placed either on the platforms where people spend more time or inside washrooms,” he says.
At 3 pm, two men walk towards the machine purposefully and open a side panel. Contracted by HLL, they take out the money that has been made from sales so far and replace the sold items.
As evening sets in, with the station now buzzing with people headed home, three women in colourful saris and a 7-year-old girl, all from Mumbai, buy a can of Fanta for Rs 20.
Minutes later, four men and a young boy arrive and, in a repeat of what Devi described, the boy gets a sanitary napkin out of the machine. The five look at it and turn it over wondering what it is, before the embarrassed men tell the boy to put it in his pocket. The boy places it instead on a metal stand meant to hold maps.
A guard immediately yells, telling the group to pick it up and throw it outside.