Geographies in Depth

The power of a zero-rupee note

Alice Lloyd
Online and Social Media Producer, The World Bank Group
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This post first appeared on The World Bank’s Governance for Development Blog.

An expatriate Indian physics professor, when traveling back home to India, found himself harassed by endless extortion demands. As a way to fight corruption by shaming the officials who ask for bribes, the professor created a fake currency bill: the zero-rupee note.

The notes are identical to Indian banknotes, but carry the slogan, “Eliminate corruption at all levels,” and the pledge, “I promise to neither accept nor give bribe”.

Vijay Anand, president of the non-governmental organization 5th Pillar, thought the idea could work on a larger scale. Initially, the NGO printed 25,000 zero-rupee notes and distributed them to students in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Since 2007, the NGO has distributed more than one million bills in five languages, covering 600-plus institutions. Volunteers hand them out near places where officials often solicit bribes, such as railway stations and government hospitals.

The movement also engages in tactics designed to heighten awareness, build interest, communicate the message, garner media attention, gain support, and exert civic pressure on authorities.

One of the biggest impediments to anti-corruption efforts is the institutionalization of corrupt practices in everyday society. Citizens view them as a permanent fixture, and this view is difficult to change.

The story of zero-rupee note is one of 18 hopeful cases published in Changing Norms is Key to Fighting Everyday Corruption, of how citizens around the world can come together to tackle corruption and change norms.

Fighting everyday corruption can seem impossible. But these studies illustrate practical approaches, tools, and techniques that have been successful in bringing citizens together to stand against and defeat corruption.

The “zero-rupee note” campaign has transformed the way of doing business in India.

For many Indians, basic services such as obtaining a driver’s license, a voter ID, or a birth certificate are time-consuming and often require “hidden fees” by officials to help expedite the service. Transparency International (TI) reports that each year almost four million poor Indian families must bribe officials for access to basic public services.

 

Prior to the use of zero-rupee notes, corrupt officials had seldom encountered resistance from ordinary people. But now things have changed. When people have the courage to show their zero-rupee notes, they are condemning bribery. Officials want to keep their jobs and are fearful about setting off disciplinary proceedings, not to mention risking going to jail – because bribery in India is punishable with jail time.

Now, some officials even have the zero-rupee note displayed in their office to let people know that they are not corrupt.

While 5th Pillar regularly publishes anecdotal success stories and Transparency International reports a slight general decrease in bribes in India between 2008 and 2011, the latest year for which there is data, it is still too early to tell if the zero-rupee effort is linked directly to a reduction in corruption.

The key factor in the campaign’s success, however, is that citizens are willing to use the notes. Millions of people are now willing to stand up against a corrupt practice that was once considered the norm.

This story is but one example of how Changing Norms is Key to Fighting Everyday Corruption.

If you are interested in learning about practical approaches, tools, and techniques that have been successful in bringing citizens together to stand against and defeat corruption, I invite you to read this paper.

And perhaps you could start a campaign like the one started by the expatriate Indian professor, to change norms in your country by fighting everyday corruption.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Alice Lloyd is a Online and Social Media Producer at The World Bank Group. 

Image: An employee counts Indian rupee currency notes. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi. 

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