Privacy for the Poor

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            In an era where the civil society debates erosion of privacy due to social media like Facebook or massive government programs like Aadhaar, it feels almost surreal to travel through Himachal Pradesh and see homes tagged with their poverty status. This photograph, taken from the road, shows that the family living in this dwelling is classified as being “Below Poverty Line,”, Mr. Om Prakash, son of Shankar Datt lives in this home and his family consists of four people.  I happened to observe his lovely teenage daughter dressed in her school uniform setting out for school and wondered how she feels to have “Below Poverty Line” tattooed on her identity.

            World Bank economists Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey carried out experiments in Indian villages and found that children who were identified as being dalit had lower performance on academic tests than the same children before this identification was carried out. Their findings are consistent with the large quantity of research on labeling which suggests that labeling individuals with characteristics that are perceived negatively or reflects an underprivileged background tends to stigmatize them and may well turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

             Do I, a passer-by, really need to know that Mr. Om Prakash is poor and hence, eligible for (and presumably receiving) government assistance? Even more importantly, does his daughter really need her friends to know this? This is not a uniquely Himachal phenomenon. The “Below Poverty Line” lists are meant to be displayed and verified in Panchayat Bhawan, local government office. In many cases, they are even available online.  Ostensibly this is to ensure that no undeserving person manages to appropriate government benefits. However, little attention is paid to preserving the privacy and dignity of these economically disadvantaged families. It is almost as if the poor don’t deserve any dignity!

© Sonalde Desai 2012