India is struggling to prevent millions of condoms from being made into toys or sold as balloons.

The contraceptives were distributed free to control the country's population and restrict the Aids virus.

However, they are being used instead to strengthen roads, provide extra waterproofing for houses and to carry water.

Health activists said millions of condoms were melted down for their latex and made into toys. Others were dyed and sold as balloons.

In rural areas, villagers used them as water containers. India's soldiers covered their gun barrels with condoms as protection against dust.

Only a quarter of about 1.5 billion condoms made each year were "properly utilised", the activists said.

Health planners are trying to control India's population of more than 1.2 billion. In 2005 the HIV epidemic afflicted more than 5.7 million people. Of the 891 million condoms meant to be handed out free, most were used by road contractors, who mixed them with concrete and tar to create a smooth surface.

Most Indians are hesitant to talk about sex openly.

The National Aids Control Organisation chief, Sujatha Rao, said yesterday that Indian attitudes had to change.

A campaign in nearby Thailand has led to a sharp rise in condom use and a fall in new HIV infections.