From cheap food-grains to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), India spends lavishly on anti-poverty programmes. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has estimated anti-poverty spending by Union government ministries totals at least Rs51,000 crore annually (figures for 2007-08). That comes to US$ 10 billion a year, and one is not even counting state government welfare outlays. Well spent, such sums could change India within the term of a single Lok Sabha. Instead, "leakages" — a euphemism for plain embezzlement and institutional inefficiency - cause this wealth to just drain away.What if much of this money was given directly to the poorest families in villages and cities? The idea is not as outlandish at it may sound. In its manifesto for the 2009 election, the Telugu Desam Party promised poor and lower middle-class voters in Andhra Pradesh a cash transfer scheme. The money would be sent to a bank account to be opened in the name of the most senior female member of the family. The account-holder would be given an ATM card and taught to operate it.Scheme beneficiaries would need to meet certain benchmarks. For instance, their children would have to be vaccinated as per India's universal immunisation programme. In this manner, the cash transfer programme would put money in the hands of the poorest citizens, would empower women in such families, and would contribute to public health.The proposal was actually borrowed from Bolsa Familia (Family Fund), a social welfare programme introduced by Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Lula, as the former Brazilian president is better known, was first elected to office in 2002. Bolsa Familia contributed to his re-election in 2006 and that of his hand-picked successor four years later. It is now the world's largest such cash transfer mission.Under Bolsa Familia, about 50 million people — roughly 13 million families or a fourth of Brazil's population — are given cash transfers. They are obligated to send their children to school and maintain vaccination records. Critics have said the programme does not address long-term causes of poverty and does not create sustainable economic assets. Lula argues it is alleviating conditions for millions in the short run and nurturing human capital — by providing for better education and health — for the long run.Bolsa Familia stipend recipients use the bulk of the money, a World Bank report says, "to buy food, school supplies, and clothes for the children". Families are eating better and child labour numbers are down. In February 2009, Lula told Newsweek in an interview: "In six years we have lifted 20 million people out of poverty and into the middle class." In a sense, Bolsa Familia has proved far more efficacious than the NREGP. The UPA government needs to ponder that, and perhaps Mukherjee's cash transfer experiment will be a start.