KOLKATA // A corruption monitor has launched a campaign challenging India's culture of bribery by issuing "zero rupee" banknotes that activists are handing out to corrupt government employees.
The zero rupee note, which closely resembles the Indian 50-rupee note, including the image of Mohandas Gandhi, carries the slogan "eliminate corruption at all levels", with the usual promise of redemption by the Reserve Bank of India being replaced by the pledge, "I promise to neither accept nor give bribe". The Fifth Pillar, the non-governmental organisation based in Washington that is behind the campaign, said that by offering the zero rupee notes, apart from embarrassing bribe-seeking officials, the group aims to popularise the message that in no situation will Indians pay bribes.
"The zero rupee note has proven to be very successful in challenging corrupt 'bakshish-demanding' train ticket examiners, police officers and other public service officials in our novel anti-bribe campaign involving the people," said Vijay Anand, the president of Fifth Pillar's Indian headquarters in Chennai. "On one recent night, virtually for no reason, one auto-rickshaw was stopped by a policeman who sought some amount of bribe to let him go. The driver quickly handed out a zero rupee note instead. The policeman was taken aback, but smiled and let the auto-rickshaw driver go," Mr Anand said.
Rajesh Chandran, 38, a software programmer in Chennai and Fifth Pillar activist, said when he was recently travelling to Chennai from Madurai by train and a train ticket examiner asked for a bribe to allot a berth, he was amazed by the effect of the zero rupee note. "There were several empty berths in the coach, but the [examiner] did not want to allot one to me. He hinted that he would get me a berth only if I paid a bribe. I handed out a zero rupee note from my wallet and stared in his eyes, signalling that I would not pay a bribe. He looked somewhat shaken or embarrassed and within a few seconds he allotted me a berth," Mr Chandran said.
"In Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata I have friends who carry zero rupee notes in their wallets." Fifth Pillar has circulated one million zero rupee notes countrywide, but mostly in the Chennai region, as part of its nationwide mission to weed out corruption across society. The notes have been printed in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and English. Unsurprisingly, Fifth Pillar's zero rupee campaign has faced resistance. A few months ago, field volunteers were severely beaten for catching a village administrative officer red-handed while he accepted a bribe in Tamil Nadu. Mr Anand said such attacks have only strengthened his resolve to fight corruption.
"Next time someone asks you for a bribe, just take your country's zero currency note and hand it to them. This will let the other person know that you refuse to give or take any money in order to perform services required by law or to give or take money to do something illegal," said a statement from the Fifth Pillar. Corruption is a daily part of life in India, where ordinary citizens who have no connections in the country's vast bureaucracy are forced to pay cash bribes for such basic services as phone and electricity connections, enrolling children in school or even collecting compensation from state insurance agents.
Fifth Pillar claims that every year, Indians pay corrupt train ticket inspectors, police, civil servants, politicians and others bribes amounting to US$4.8 billion (Dh18bn), an estimate many believe should actually be much higher. Transparency International India (TII), the Indian chapter of the Berlin-based corruption watchdog, following its three-month survey of low-level corruption conducted between November 2007 and January 2008, found that the police were the most corrupt group, with two out of every five citizens seeking its help forced to pay bribes.
The survey also found that 26 per cent of Indians living in poverty had paid nearly nine billion rupees (Dh718million) in bribes during those three months to avail basic public utility services. In Transparency International's latest annual index, published in November, India was ranked 84 out of 180 countries in terms of corruption in the public sector. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org