NEW DELHI // For the 150,000 residents of Rajasthan’s Dausa district who receive heavily subsidised wheat and rice rations, life was already hard enough. But then, adding insult to injury, the government in the northern Indian state painted "I am poor" on the outer walls of their homes in bright red letters.
Those affected, who are officially classed as being below the poverty line, told The National they felt humiliated.
"I tried to stop the painter who came to do this … But he said that we wouldn’t get free grain unless we agreed to be identified," said Durga Meena, a labourer from Sikrai village in Dausa, speaking on a mobile phone belonging to a local reporter.
"Of course I feel ashamed. I know I am poor but at least I should be able to have my dignity."
The "I am poor" signs, which gradually appeared on homes over the past few months, also include the words "I receive rations", followed by the household’s identification number, on a yellow background.
After local media reports on the signs sparked indignation across the country, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government defended the decision, while also claiming the idea was first implemented by the previous Congress party government in Rajasthan.
"The practice of identifying BPL [below the poverty line] families by writing BPL outside their homes was started by the Congress government through an order dated August 6, 2009," Rajendra Singh Rathore, Rajasthan’s minister for panchayati raj – a system of local government – and rural development, was reported as saying last Thursday by India’s Deccan Chronicle newspaper.
On Monday, Mr Rathore told The National the BJP government had implemented the practice for a reason.
"Some families were getting food grain when they are not entitled to them so the idea was to target those who are really poor to ensure only they receive this benefit, not to shame them," he said.
"I don’t like the way this has been turned into a political controversy but if people’s feelings have been hurt, we will remove the signs."
The opposition Congress party, meanwhile, called the signs "a sick joke".
"The state government provides them [residents] rations under the National Food Security Act, it’s their legal right, and not a charity from the government," Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said.
Under the National Food Security Act, state governments are obliged to provide subsidised wheat and rice rations to the 67 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion population deemed as being below the poverty line. Around 70 per cent of the residents in Dausa are eligible for subsidised grains.
"What this [the painting decision] shows is a complete disconnect from the people and disregard for their sentiments. The poor don’t need their noses rubbed in the dirt about their status ... this idea of branding homes is undemocratic and insulting," said an editorial in the Hindustan Times on Sunday.
Pushpa Devi, also from the Dausa village of Sikrai, said she hated the signs but had to accept them.
"I get 15 kilos of wheat to help me feed my family," she said. "If the government wants to brand us in this way I don’t like it, but my priority is to feed my family."