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Zero Rupee: Fifth Pillar's subtle fight against corruption in India
It may sound self-defeating, but Fifth Pillar, an NGO headquartered in Chennai, is printing its own bank notes in an attempt to halt bribery and corruption. Vijay Anand, its president, explains
In 1997 an expat Indian physics professor was so fed up with the corruption he witnessed on a trip home from the United States, he created the zero rupee note. Now, 13 years later, his idea is gaining currency around the world.
The idea is as simple as it is effective. The note looks like a regular rupee bill complete with the image of Mahatma Gandhi. But it has a monetary value of zero in the right hand corner. Its most powerful asset is the phrase "Eliminate Corruption at All Levels," boldly emblazoned across the front.
The professor thought it would be a good way to say "no" to any policemen, train operators or city officials who offered their hands for unwarranted baksheesh. But for Vijay Anand, president of the NGO Fifth Pillar, the idea had much more value. If distributed widely enough, it could encourage Indians to fight corruption on a local level on a day-to-day basis.
"We use the rupee note to kick off conversations," Anand told CNNGo. "When we step out of the office in Chennai to get lunch, we give them out to people waiting for their food. I give them out to people boarding planes. Anywhere where people are waiting. We have distributed over one million notes covering 600-plus institutions including schools and colleges since 2007."
In recent weeks international media attention from the likes of The Economist and the UK's Telegraph have shone a spotlight on Fifth Pillar and the zero rupee note, leaving Anand and his team struggling to keep up with an idea that is on the verge of its tipping point.
Most of the success has taken place in India’s largely educated southern cities Chennai, Vizag, Bangalore and Hyderabad. But Anand has also received calls from Nepal, Argentina, Mexico, France and Germany, all debating versions of the zero currency concept for their own purposes. Some want their own note to fight corruption, others want to use it in schools to teach children.
At home, hundreds of Indian citizens looking to be empowered in obtaining their fundamental rights write and email Fifth Pillar every month. Hundreds more phone in every day. The zero rupee note allows its user to make a cutting statement without any of the grand moralizing about the ‘war on bribery and corruption.'
For many Indians, basic services such as obtaining a driver’s license, getting a voter’s ID or a birth certificate are time-consuming, often made more unbearable when officials request "hidden fees" to help expidite the service. But these 'procedures' are rarely talked about it in public.
In Mumbai, a social worker who did not wish to be identified told CNNGo that no one has time to haggle over bribery. As a result people here are more open about asking for and delivering a bribe. You pay, the social worker says, and it gets done in a minute.
"Our sole objective is to promote zero tolerance towards corruption in the future," Anand says, with a single, oversized red zero rupee note, donated by a printing press using left over paper, sticking out of his jacket pocket. "Corruption is one of the greatest barriers to development. We are at the awareness-creation stage of our campaign. And we need to overcome what has become a poisonous cultural habit. It will take three to four decades."
The note's quality is poor but Gandhi’s face is recognizable. Instead of "I promise to pay the bearer...", the note reads: "I promise to neither accept nor give a bribe."
5th Pillar also distributes a Tamil monthly Magazine called Mattram (Change), that recounts, in an entertaining fashion, the chase, capture and downfall of many corrupt men and women. PDF versions of the magazine (Tamil language version only) can be found on www.maattram.com. Tamil is the language of India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu.
People also ask Anand if it’s not dangerous. Often in India when you set out to expose corruption in the system, your life can become difficult.
"Because of the way we operate, not attacking or accusing any party or individual, we have faced no problem, no danger, no threats, no resistance," Anand says. "In fact, in the last three years Fifth Pillar has not made anyone’s life more complicated by offering a zero rupee note in place of a bribe."
Fifth Pillar's strategy has been to target schools and adolescents. “We reach out to a younger generation and drive home the message in a hard-hitting manner. This is not a choice. It’s an imperative. We teach them that bribery and corruption are poison. We use that word. Then they take a pledge, sign a banner and go home and tell their parents.”
"Indians currently stand to lose a minimum of a lakh of rupees (Rs 100,000), personally, in their lifetime, to bribery. And it’s because if out of 1.1 billion Indians, 90 crore are "good" then they are also silent," says Anand, referring to the fact that the majority of people accept the state of affairs.
"If India had started a war against corruption 40 years back, there wouldn't be a need to wage a war against terrorism today, because the effects of terrorism are compounded only because of corruption in our government machinery," Anand said at the Fifth Pillar Human Chain Against Corruption event, held at Marina Beach, Chennai in January.
But does the zero rupee work in practice?
"It gets the job done," Anand says. "Just try it. People are startled that you address the issue in public. We teach people to think that taking a bribe is equal to stealing and begging and to feel unafraid. In fact, it’s usually the person suggesting a bribe who feels uncomfortable."