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The Daily Need

Fighting corruption in India, one ‘zero rupee’ at a time

CAMDEN, Maine — Birth certificates. Driver’s licenses. Ration cards.

In India, these and other documents are the essential records of everyday life, as they are in most of the developed world. Government papers are necessary for virtually every aspect of professional and family life: applying to college, getting a job, buying a home.

They also come with a price — on top of the government fee.

The large and unwieldy Indian bureaucracy is rife with corruption, advocates say, and Indian officials have made a regular practice of extracting bribes in return for government services. The most glaring examples are pervasive horse-trading in the Indian political system: officials handing out lucrative government contracts in exchange for under-the-table bribes.

Vijay Anand, an Indian activist, has adopted a novel way of fighting this corruption. As the co-founder and president of Fifth Pillar, a nonprofit advocacy group, Anand has handed out more than 1.5 million “zero rupee” notes, faux Indian currency with a written pledge not to pay or accept bribes. Anand travels the country, distributing the zero rupee notes and conducting seminars that educate Indian students on the impact of political corruption on India’s democracy.

“The politics are so mafia-like,” Anand said in an interview here at the Pop Tech conference, where he’s speaking on a panel about deception and corruption. “As a nation, as a collective society, India has been struggling for the last four, five decades. Definitely, corruption is at the bottom of these things.”

Even more pernicious than political corruption, Anand said, is the culture of bribery and quid-pro-quo that exists at every level of the Indian bureaucracy. The government is large and diffuse, making it difficult to police. The judiciary itself is feeble and corrupt. And India still struggles with a stubborn lack of social mobility and endemic poverty, motivating local officials in positions of power to leverage those positions for personal gain.

Virtually every government transaction in India comes with a bribe attached, and for years, ordinary Indian citizens have had no choice but to pay the price. Nurses, for example, routinely demand under-the-table payments in return for birth certificates, almost immediately after babies are born (and the differences in rates point up a pervasive gender bias in India as well: birth certificates cost more for boys than for girls).

Even death certificates — necessary to process insurance claims and settle family affairs — come with an extra price tag.

“This is the most common corruption, the day-to-day bribery that clouds every area of Indian citizens’ life,” Anand said. “From birth to death, an Indian citizen has to go through the corruption cycle.”

Anand’s movement, organized through social media and on college campuses across the country, has slowly brought attention to the issue of corruption in India’s tangled political system. Abuse of power, Anand says, is one of the main obstacles to economic growth and global competitiveness for India, an emerging power that has soared as a developing high-tech economy but been weighed down by infighting and a sclerotic bureaucracy.

Corruption has also prevented ordinary Indian citizens from benefiting from the economy’s rapid growth, Anand said. He told the story of a woman who had applied for a loan to pay for her granddaughter’s college education. In order to secure the loan, the woman — who owned land but had little money — needed to secure a title to her property, as collateral. The official charged with dispensing that property title demanded a bribe of 7,000 rupees, or as much as five months’ salary, in return for the document.

She waited a year and a half for the documents, unable to pay the bribe. Finally, after taking Anand’s anti-corruption pledge, the woman walked into the office where she had applied for the land document and began handing out zero rupee notes. Embarrassed — in India, being accused of stealing is considered especially shameful — the official who had demanded the bribe stood up and told the woman that he would finish her paperwork immediately. “She also added that she got a cup of coffee while she was waiting, which is unheard of in an Indian government office,” Anand added.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Anand’s program is that the zero rupee note can go viral, in a sense, without even being on the Internet. The 1.5 million zero rupee notes that have been handed out so far seem to have a habit of traveling, Anand said. He has come across the notes, which resemble genuine Indian currency, in even the most remote Indian villages. “It connects like-minded people with the organization,” Anand said. “Because it looks like a currency, they know there’s something significant about it.”

Anand has preached to audiences of hundreds of college students and orchestrated large human chains on the beaches of Chennai, the capital city in his home district. But nothing has been as effective as the zero rupee note, which features the slogan “I promise to neither accept nor give bribe,” as well as a portrait of Mohandas Gandhi. The nonviolence of Gandhi’s freedom movement, Anand said, is central to his anti-corruption message, and he draws those parallels in speeches to young Indian students. He calls the zero rupee note “a symbol of non-cooperation to corruption.”

The next step, Anand said, is to expand the concept worldwide, issuing versions of the zero rupee note in other developed countries around the world. Anand, who was inspired to mount his anti-bribery campaign after working for several years in the U.S., has already incorporated the Fifth Pillar as a registered nonprofit here, and is close to opening an American chapter. Whenever he travels the country to describe his anti-corruption movement to professors and students in the U.S., Anand said, he always gets the same reaction: “Oh, we need this in America.”