In 1993, when 11% of its 2.5 million people lived in absolute poverty and a fifth of Belo's children went hungry, a newly-elected government declared that food was a fundamental right of every citizen, much as India will do when it passes the Right to Food Act sometime this year.
These did not remain words. Patrus Ananais, then Belo's new mayor, created a council of businessmen, church leaders, labour representatives and other citizens to launch the battle against hunger. Together, they broke the pattern of reactive government.
Local farmers were, and are, given prime public spots to sell their produce to consumers, thus eliminating retail commissions that reached 100%, a situation not unfamiliar to India. The poor got access to cheap food, and farmers, themselves poor, prospered at a time when farm incomes were declining across Brazil.
In addition, Belo grants entrepreneurs rights to run, on public land, 34 local retail markets, where the government fixes the price, usually about two-thirds of the market price, for about 20 healthy foods. Other food can be sold at market price.
Perhaps the biggest direct cushion against hunger is Belo's series of government-run cafeterias. Each offers people — not just to those officially declared poor — hot meals (rice, beans, salad, ground beef and an apple) for about Rs. 50. Homeless people eat next to construction workers, uniformed policemen, mothers with babies and nurses.
The local university is deeply involved in keeping the system honest and functioning. Students survey the prices of more than 40 basic foods, supply these to local media outlets and paste them on walls and bus stands. "Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy," writes Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet (a 1971 bestseller on meat production and global food scarcity). She recently visited Belo and noted how the hunger programme benefited a fourth of the city's inhabitants and cut the infant death rate by more than half in a decade. Its cost: about Rs. 5,000 crore, no more than 2% of the city's budget.
In 2003, Brazil elected as president trade union leader Luiz Inacio da Silva, or "Lula" as he is popularly known. Inspired by Belo's successes, he made hunger a fundamental right nationally and created the Fome Zero, or zero hunger programme. Lula is no longer president, but the programme has expanded into a wide-ranging successful front against hunger and poverty, involving cash subsidies — conditional on things like school enrolment and immunisation — and a range of social services. In a tribute to his vision and ability, Brazil made Ananais, the former Belo mayor, its minister for social development and fome zero.
Belo and Brazil's great strides against hunger and poverty offer critical lessons to India, at a time when the right-to-food legislation is its final stretch and worryingly devoid of a framework that will involve local governments and farmers. It is also without a key provision in the original draft — the cafeterias that have been so successful in Brazil.
Over the last year, there has been a great brouhaha over India's poverty line, and its manipulation by officials keen to talk up progress. But a dispassionate examination of the alleged lies and statistics makes it clear that an upswell of economic growth has indeed floated many boats; the government says about 50 million people have been lifted out of poverty over the last five years. Even if you do not believe these numbers, the great, visible explosion of shopping, housing and telecommunications tells you that India's economic engine has fired. A dysfunctional government is now responsible for slowing the economy, but the fuel for forward movement will ever remain — a surge in expectation and aspiration.
None of this guarantees a healthy, hunger-free India. While India's human development index — a measure of social indicators, such as nutrition, education and health — also rose 21% over the last decade, the progress is so lopsided as to be unsustainable and comes amid evidence that inequality is rising.
Every exploration of India's hunger and malnutrition crisis indicates how state intervention has, thus far, failed. Over the last two years, Hindustan Times and Mint reporters have, as part of the 'Tracking Hunger' project (www.hindustantimes.com/trackinghunger), documented how India's anti-poverty programmes are deeply rotten, ineffectual and Delhi-driven, despite $10 billion (more than Rs. 50,000 crore) now spent on them annually. Hunger, they found, endures in every corner of the country. Now, the Wall Street Journal's India Real Time website is running the findings of a nationwide investigation by the Centre for Equity Studies, a New Delhi think tank, showcasing how millions of Indians simply cannot find enough to eat.
Even official statistics show that calorie consumption, an indicator of access to nutritious food, has steadily declined. Every high-income state has millions of people who cannot find a nutritious meal. Heading this list is Gujarat, known for its roaring economy and high per capita income. But the number of Gujarati children who are underweight is below the national average, and the state's rank in a national hunger index is just above India's poorest states: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand.
"India is the worst performer in terms of low birth weight, underweight and wasting of children in BRIC and SAARC countries," notes the India Human Development Report 2011, released by the Planning Commission. The report, startlingly frank for a government publication, makes a dark evaluation: "If India is not in a state of famine, it is quite clearly in a state of chronic hunger."
The views expressed by the author are personal.