The Sunday Story The Workers Party government of President Lula launched an ambitious anti-poverty programme called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant).

After Rio de Janeiro’s silvery beaches, flanked by blue waters and glitzy malls, have been left behind, the road becomes bumpy and the air turns stale. Beyond the Tijuca forest, on the western fringes of Rio, there is a patch of semi-arid land crammed with small houses sitting along narrow roads. This is Cidade de Deus (City of God), one of the oldest favelas (slums) in Rio, made globally known by Fernando Meirelles’s 2002 flick of the same name. Set in this favela of mid-1990s, the film exposed Rio’s underbelly: armed gangs roaming the streets, the poor robbing the poor and death hanging like dust over sunny football fields. Till a few years ago, Cidade de Deus symbolised everything wrong with Brazil: poverty, cocaine and violence.

Today, the gangs have all vanished. Now, the poor here run shops, cafes, bars and other small businesses. Money is pouring in and property prices are on the rise. At night, women and children walk on the streets. The drug peddlers keep away from this community, which is protected by special police units. The people here never had it so good. “We had no peace. Now I can raise my kids with more hope, no fear,” says Maura da Silva, a resident.

But the lives of people like Da Silva didn’t change in one day or through some magic trick. The transformation began in 2003, when the Workers Party government of President Lula launched an ambitious anti-poverty programme called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant). Under this direct cash transfer scheme, the federal government began providing at least 70 reals (US $35) a month per person to extremely poor families with children six years of age and under.

With its economy booming, finding money for this plan was not a problem for Brazil. The real challenge was to make sure the money reached the beneficiaries, without any leakage. It was a huge task, but the federal government prepared well before it actually started sending out the money.

Unified registry

Some direct cash transfer programmes had existed in the country since 1995, but since Bolsa Familia was more ambitious in its reach, the government began by creating a single unified registry of the poorest in the country. Once that was done, a system was put in place to transfer the cash through ATM cards issued by Caixa Economica Federal, the state-owned savings bank. This card is the poor’s ticket out of poverty.

Sitting in her small salon in Cidade de Deus, Fernanda, 32, a single mother of two, displays her Bolsa Familia card with pride. “I never had any money. I didn’t have a bank account. Now, it’s such a great relief that I get some money into my account every month from the government. Everybody I know now lives better,” says Fernanda, who receives an additional 1,362 reals (US$ 600) per year because her daughters go to a day-care centre. “This card has changed our lives.”

To make sure that the money given to families is used properly, the card is given preferentially to a female head of household which she can use like a debit card in more than 14,000 Caixa ATMs across the country. “Thanks to the massive inflation of 1980s, Brazil has developed a very efficient banking system. They have a huge network of ATMs, which offer a wide range of services. This is something India has to learn if they want to provide better services to people,” says Rakesh Vaidyanathan, a Sao Paulo-based consultant who works with Indian and Brazilian firms.

India may have to learn a few more lessons from Brazil’s anti-poverty initiatives, which are not restricted to doling out cash. In 2011, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff launched a big plan named “Brasil without poverty” to lift 16.2 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty through increased access to education, health, sanitation, electricity and productive inclusion in addition to direct cash transfer. The single registry of the poor (Brazilian equivalent of UID), maintained for the Bolsa Familia plan by the Caixa, is also used by other ministries to provide subsidies and services to the poor.

This has been the pattern in almost all South American countries which are spending huge amount of money on their social programmes. In Venezuela, where anti-poverty programmes are called Missions, one plan is entirely dedicated to providing identity cards to the poor. Called Mission Identidad (Identity Mission), this programme provides Venezuelan national identity cards to facilitate access to the social services provided by the other Missions.

In this part of the world, where one can’t even board an inter-city bus or enter a public building without an ID card, the poor used to complain about this ‘harassment’. But now, with access to social programmes, they carry their new IDs with pride. In Cidade de Deus, people like Da Silva and Fernanda are eagerly waiting to buy tickets for the World Cup 2014. The tickets, which range in price from $90 for first-round matches to $990 for the final match in Rio, are available to the Bolsa Familia card-holders for just $23.

In this football-crazy country, the poor can’t thank their government enough for the Bolsa Familia cards.

(shobhan.saxena@thehindu.co.in)

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