India finds a cheap solution to bribery: the zero-rupee note

Andrew Buncombe
Wednesday 03 February 2010 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In a country where corruption is embedded in everyday life, encouraging someone to hand over yet another banknote to a grabbing hand might not seem the best way to stop the problem.

But the notes that an NGO in the southern city of Chennai have been handing out to citizens in the tens of thousands are very different, for they are worth precisely "zero rupees". Instead of the usual message, "I promise to pay the bearer...", the notes being distributed read: "I promise to neither accept nor give a bribe".

The notes are the brainchild of the crusading charity Fifth Pillar, which works to improve civic life in India and beyond. Its founder, Vijay Anand, an Indian American, came across the idea among the South Asian community in the US and brought it back to India when he returned. More than a million of the notes have been printed and distributed among ordinary people to use when asked for a bribe.

A spokesman for the charity, A Subramani, said people in India were routinely asked for bribes by government officials or politicians. Yet they had found that when the zero rupee notes were given instead, the person demanding the bribe backed off.

"It seems that the person is afraid that they are going to get caught," he said. Those who have made use of the notes speak approvingly. "The train ticket examiner told me to wait an hour, even though berths were available," Ravi Sundar, told the Mail Today newspaper, recalling a journey between Chennai and Coimbatore. When he handed over the note the berth was provided immediately. "He kept staring at me but said nothing," he added.

A survey carried out over two years and released by Transparency International found that India's poor paid considerably more proportionally than the middle classes to obtain education, healthcare and food stamps, all supposedly free services.

It found that the police were among the most corrupt of all officials: two out of every five people who sought their help felt obliged to pay bribes to officers.

The government is planning a national identity card scheme that it believes will help reduce the opportunities for officials to demand bribes.

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