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How India nearly killed the condom industry—and how I adapted

Reuters/Mariana Bazo
The best quality condoms had gone off shelves in India thanks to a drug pricing order that put a cap on prices.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Last week, just before world population day, the New Delhi high court set aside a notification by the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority which restricted the price that could be charged for condoms.

Millions of Indians, myself included, have had to adapt after the price cap took the best quality condoms off shelves. Condom use has been declining in urban India for over a decade, and it seems the trend was exacerbated in the past year by cutbacks in advertising by companies harmed by the notification.

As a teenager, I opted to be an evolutionary dead end and have stuck with that resolution. Having no progeny is by far the best contribution anybody can make to the environment. That’s not the reason I chose to stay child-free, of course, but anybody with kids who tries to shame me for my carbon-intensive lifestyle choices, such as my love of red meat, can expect instant and unanswerable retaliation.

Not producing children is difficult but condoms have been accomplices in my effort these past 25 years, preventing the propagation of my genes (and the DNA of sundry bacteria and viruses, though being with the same partner since college has made that less important) effectively enough to gain my trust and respect. They’re never going to get my affection, or that of any man, but the best contemporary ones are only a mild annoyance.

The first contraceptive I tried was a brand called Moods, made by the government as an upmarket alternative to Nirodh. Looking around for better options, I found most chemists stocked grey market imports from South Korea and Taiwan. All of them featured semi-naked white women on the packs, the most popular model being Samantha Fox. She’s a a Brit who became the Sun newspaper’s most famous Page 3 girl (the term refers to different things in England and post-Bombay Times India) before turning into a one-hit wonder pop star. That one hit was “Touch Me (I Want Your Body)”, the video of which illustrates everything that was tacky about 1980s music and fashion. Fox went through a born-again Christian phase before coming out as lesbian a few years ago, which is entirely irrelevant to my condom story.

I tried the South Korean rubbers, and preferred them to Moods, but sought something more discreetly packaged because I didn’t fancy carrying around pictures of naked, big-breasted women. After scanning the counters of dozens of chemists, I chanced upon a ten-pack of a Japanese brand called Skinless Skin packaged in simple black with a floral motif. It was a bonus that the condoms themselves smelled less like balloons than the others I had tried.

Multiple choices

In England as a post-grad, my choice of sheaths expanded considerably. Making a shopping list before a holiday back home, I put down Durex condoms alongside Camembert cheese and Lindt chocolates. An American housemate happened to see the list and laughed, “Seriously? Don’t they make condoms in your country?” “They do,” I replied, “Just not very good ones.”

Years later, after both of us had returned to our home countries, he mailed me a pack of Trojans, marking them “prophylactics” on the parcel, hoping the word would confuse customs agents. When it reached me, one of the sachets had been torn open and the rubber inside slit, perhaps to check for drugs.

By then, Durex had come to India, and a couple of decent home-grown brands had established themselves as well. I didn’t have to look beyond my neighbourhood medical store for my contraceptive needs until 2014, when the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority made its strange decision. It claimed that allowing free pricing for condoms would flood the market with high-priced goods at the expense of cheaper options. Can’t you visualise the headlines now? “Mercedes puts the squeeze on Maruti” or, “China’s overpriced goods drive Indian manufacturers to bankruptcy.”

Thanks to this voodoo economics, good condoms became as rare in India as honest politicians. I took to stocking up on trips abroad, until I remembered those Trojans my American friend had once sent over, and wondered if Amazon offered that service.

As it turned out, not only could Amazon deliver condoms to India, but the value packs of my favourite brand were priced far lower than high-street prices. Bundling the order with a couple of other items brought down unit shipping costs. The order arrived in reasonable time, with no opened sachets or slit rubbers.

Now that the Delhi high court has restored sanity to the local condom market, I will be spoilt for choice, but I think I’ll stick with the long-distance parcel service, if only because the mythic resonances of Amazon and Trojan make them sound like perfect allies in the noble battle against procreation.

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