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Paying Zero for Public Services

Fumiko Nagano's picture

Imagine that you are an old lady from a poor household in a town in the outskirts of Chennai city, India. All you have wanted desperately for the last year and a half is to get a title in your name for the land you own, called patta. You need this land title to serve as a collateral for a bank loan you have been hoping to borrow to finance your granddaughter’s college education. But there has been a problem: the Revenue Department official responsible for giving out the patta has been asking you to pay a little fee for this service. That’s right, a bribe. But you are poor (you are officially assessed to be below the poverty line) and you do not have the money he wants. And the most absurd part about the scenario you find yourself in is that this is a public service that should be rendered to you free of charge in the first place. What would you do? You might conclude, as you have done for the last 1-1/2 years, that there isn’t much you can do…but wait, you just heard about a local NGO by the name of 5th Pillar and it just happened to give you a powerful ally: a zero rupee note.

In Doha last month, CommGAP learned about the work of 5th Pillar, which has a unique initiative to mobilize citizens to fight corruption. In India, petty corruption is pervasive – people often face situations where they are asked to pay bribes for public services that should be provided free. 5th Pillar distributes zero rupee notes in the hopes that ordinary Indians can use these notes as a means to protest demands for bribes by public officials. I recently spoke with Vijay Anand, 5th Pillar’s president, to learn more about this fascinating initiative.

According to Anand, the idea was first conceived by an Indian physics professor at the University of Maryland, who, in his travels around India, realized how widespread bribery was and wanted to do something about it. He came up with the idea of printing zero-denomination notes and handing them out to officials whenever he was asked for kickbacks as a way to show his resistance. Anand took this idea further: to print them en masse, widely publicize them, and give them out to the Indian people. He thought these notes would be a way to get people to show their disapproval of public service delivery dependent on bribes. The notes did just that. The first batch of 25,000 notes were met with such demand that 5th Pillar has ended up distributing one million zero-rupee notes to date since it began this initiative. Along the way, the organization has collected many stories from people using them to successfully resist engaging in bribery.

One such story was our earlier case about the old lady and her troubles with the Revenue Department official over a land title. Fed up with requests for bribes and equipped with a zero rupee note, the old lady handed the note to the official. He was stunned. Remarkably, the official stood up from his seat, offered her a chair, offered her tea and gave her the title she had been seeking for the last year and a half to obtain without success. Had the zero rupee note reached the old lady sooner, her granddaughter could have started college on schedule and avoided the consequence of delaying her education for two years. In another experience, a corrupt official in a district in Tamil Nadu was so frightened on seeing the zero rupee note that he returned all the bribe money he had collected for establishing a new electricity connection back to the no longer compliant citizen.

Anand explained that a number of factors contribute to the success of the zero rupee notes in fighting corruption in India. First, bribery is a crime in India punishable with jail time. Corrupt officials seldom encounter resistance by ordinary people that they become scared when people have the courage to show their zero rupee notes, effectively making a strong statement condemning bribery. In addition, officials want to keep their jobs and are fearful about setting off disciplinary proceedings, not to mention risking going to jail. More importantly, Anand believes that the success of the notes lies in the willingness of the people to use them. People are willing to stand up against the practice that has become so commonplace because they are no longer afraid: first, they have nothing to lose, and secondly, they know that this initiative is being backed up by an organization—that is, they are not alone in this fight.

This last point—people knowing that they are not alone in the fight—seems to be the biggest hurdle when it comes to transforming norms vis-à-vis corruption. For people to speak up against corruption that has become institutionalized within society, they must know that there are others who are just as fed up and frustrated with the system. Once they realize that they are not alone, they also realize that this battle is not unbeatable. Then, a path opens up—a path that can pave the way for relatively simple ideas like the zero rupee notes to turn into a powerful social statement against petty corruption.


Photo Credit: 5th Pillar


Submitted by Nirmal on
Yep.. and that's the Indian Consumer. The old lady story is fine but the vast majority of the corruption is because the old lady is usually poor at all and has in all probablilty encroached upon her absent neighbour's land and wants to legalise that situation. Any of us Indians looking at this page is probably well educated and middle class or higher. While we whine and complain and express horror at the latest transparency international ranking, we're not above bribing the traffic sergeant half the real fine amount when found tipsy behind the wheel. We're not above bribing the water authority engineer to get an out of turn water or sewage connection. We don't mind the railway employees and police living in filthy, barely livable quarters and sending off our maids and carpenters and electricians off to some hole in the outskirts as part of city "beautification" campaigns but we are filled with righteous indignation when their service falls short or the govt. proposes to build better dwellings for them or even give them water (yeah that's right.. Mumbai was in uproar when the state govt. decided to give some water to a slum) People who initiate a bribe are people who can afford it and it quickly embeds itself into an institution and it becomes a burden on those who can't afford it. Another part is that this is a market correcting itself. Govt employees are extremely poorly paid and morale is abyssmal. That there are bribes given for the asking means that their services are priced much lower than what the market is willing to give them..and they seek to rectify at least the financial state by taking bribes. The only solution I see is something implied by someone above.. a concerted effort to better the state of govt. employees combined with strict transparency and performance measures, audits and punishment.

Submitted by Armaan on
I think you're absolutely right. It's easy to ask people to be refuse money when you have it yourself. The solution lies in the root of the problem(in the system) and not where it manifests itself(officials taking bribes). Great comment.

Submitted by bcscanlon on
Here in the US we have a culture of barely disguised bribery (lobbyists) in Washington. Perhaps including a $0 note with letters to representatives would be a useful message.

Submitted by Crayon Monitor on
This corruption problem is faced by every country in the world, where any official feels that the legitimate power of their position (normally quite a tiny bit of actual power) can be perverted and used to extort money or other favours from the people they are meant to serve. This has been worsened in many cases by treating the public as customers, enhancing the connection between paying and getting service. Singapore's solution is the only method that will have a serious impact, by making the income of the officials high enough that it has 3 effects at least - lowering the urge to enhance their income by corruption because they earn good money; raising the risks and costs of losing their higher income if exposed as extortionists; and making the rank of official something to aspire to, so that officials in general will not be kindly disposed towards acts of extortion by their fellows. PLUS you need extravagantly heavy punishment of a very public nature when offenders are found, to indicate that the changes are serious and not avoidable. Singapore could introduce all this because it was effectively run by a seriously paternalistic nationalist ideologue with a compliant police force and a single government bureaucracy. Dare one say, "neo-feudal". Whether this approach can ever be introduced in India, with its vastly more diverse community and its manifold, constantly evolving democracy, where there is no predominant political flavour, and hundreds of local and regional government jurisdictions, is the big question. It is interesting to see people trying to overcome this, but it will take a lot of symbolic protests before change occurs...

Submitted by Steven Cox on
If all agents were paid on commission then the delaying tactic of waiting for a bribe would be counter-productive. For example, if an approving officer in a building department is paid by a percentage of funds collected from his department, and not by salary, then if he stalls on giving out a building permit he delays getting his own legitimate salary. Also, in North America, we effectively used public campaigns to nearly wipe out drunk driving and substantially reduce cigarette smoking. These take a long time though. Canada also, about 40 years ago started a public service campaign to get Canadians into better shape. They ran a series of ads on television showing the average 'Swede' compared to a fat and lazy Canadian. It worked. People felt ashamed and went out and got in better shape. However, this takes nearly a full generation before it becomes fully engrained in the national psyche. One thing that won't happen...these problems won't go away on their own. A plan of action has to be formulated and executed and stuck with. Whether it be jail time for crooked bureaucrats, or public service announcement campaigns. The problem can be solved, but it has to be faced with and addressed. S

Submitted by nittyG on
I really don't understand how this works Sorry, this went way over my head Why wouldn't an official just rip it up the notes and throw them in the trash? If this really is effective, couldn't this also be used to blackmail people doing their jobs, against the interest of, say, a real estate mafia?

Submitted by Imroz Baig on
Such initiatives may work in south , where corruption in the country is minimum. But as far as the north and other regions are concerned, I don't think there is an easy solution to corruption. It seems like as if its running in our blood. But its Shameful. We see this in everyday life on railway stations, govt offices, hear about them at top levels in govt and the worst - in the judicial system. It can't be controlled by handling bribe instances, There's a need to do something Big, all across the country, simultaneously. Like a revolution. Something that will create a sense of self respect with in every one who is involved in corruption.

Submitted by Anonymous on
thanks for that great post,it wld really be very helpfull if we cld know a bit more abt the initiative,in the sense,where is it located,how it works and how can we contact them.thanks again SANTOSH.

Submitted by Rachna Sharma on
Suppose, If I need a government official to pay visit to my place so that he can review the issue and gives me a positive chit for further processing in regards of that issue. And I make a use of zero rupee note to restrain the bribe. The zero rupee note can backfires. He/She can keep me waiting for the issue to resolved or might delay it. The issue can be like Passport verification etc where bribe intake is quite common and vastly used.

Submitted by Mahesh on
Indeed a great idea.. I would call this "the Nano- protest" . would like to know the name of the physics profesor. Please mail me Regards

Submitted by Anonymous on
This is not a new idea. I first came across it at least six years ago in Cameroon where CIPCRE, a Catholic development NGO based in Bafoussam, printed up and sold "Mille Gombos" ("thousand gumbo") notes. The notes had "Non a la Corruption" printed across the front of them with an anti-corruption message on the back that said, "It has become commonplace in our society to 'motivate' all service providers and to offer 'gombo' whenever any bureaucrat demands it. In making available today this note of a 'thousand gombos' the International Circle for Promotion of the Creation, the National Justice and Peace Service of the Catholic Church and the Federation of Churches and Evangelical Missions of Cameroon ask you to reflect; where is all this going to lead us? If you think, like us, that it's time to change this behavior, then join us in the fight against corruption and start giving this 'gombo' so that others will also reflect."

Submitted by Vipin Krishnan on
Another social evil is the spread of unaccountable money (black money). It is the one of the worst crisis any government can face. In this modern times, there are plenty of ways to check this: 1. All the transactions through digital ways, like the credit/debit cards. This will require mass movement, providing a unique identification for all citizens, educating all towards using the digital ways of transaction and so on. 2. Totally abolish higher currency denominations, like the 500s and 1000s. Imagine a out-of-records deal involving millions and the person has to carry all the cash in smaller denominations like say 100? sounds good? The politicians will never give a go ahead for this. So, this issue has to be initiated in the citizen level. Anyone else got more suggestions, kindly reply. Got to get this idea passing heads and start a ripple, however small though.

Submitted by 78Surti on
I command the introduction of "FIFTH PILLAR" by of Shri Vijay Anand. Rejection of such idea is easier for weaker minds but like Gandhiji's Satyagraha, a nonviolence movement' mobilized millions of Indian to achieve their independence from British rule in India. Since then millions around the word have followed the same path to attain their freedom, Barack Obama is the latest beneficiary of such movement. Is the "FIFTH PILLAR" is used by millions of people; their voice will become stronger and will develop real clout. We need to give our support, financially and morally, and allow this concept to mature. Spread the good world. What do you have to lose?

I like the idea of the zero-denomination notes and hope other countries can learn a lesson from this too.

Submitted by Barin Das on
If the bribe taker had shame enough to be apologetic, he wouldn't ask for the bribe in the first place. Recent behavioral studies have confirmed that power corrupts, and to boot it also makes them hypocritical. So the bribe taker (read person in power) will find ways and means to be corrupt while feeling it is not morally wrong.

Submitted by Felix on
I am absolutely thrilled by the idea of a 0 Rupee note! It is so simple and effective to use - just wonderful. However - I think it wouldn't work in many places other than India. As first of all bribery is punishable (and punished) in India, and second because even corrupt officials still have a feeling about what is right and wrong. In countries with no working judiciary system and where all morals haven been lost due to civil war the 0-Note probably won't work.

Submitted by Bhanu Prabha on
True,, that in a country like India, there has to be some mechanism to keep a check on corruption.. but i personally feel that this is not technically feasible. As there is a substantial amount of money that is being spent in printing these "Zero denomination" notes and we are effectively not earning the same amount by circulation of these notes in the Economy. I agree if this concept would turn out to be a great success, the amount of money spent on the printing is effectively recovered, but till then it can mount upto a huge sunk cost.

Submitted by Anonymous on
I think this note can be given to gov. officials who are zero % corrupt as trophy :-)

Submitted by Anonymous on
I am glad to see so much engagement on the subject and also agree it may not solve the major problems. But the fact that an organization and people are behind it has an effect on guilty minds. So I would like to see some practical suggestions as to how to make it more effective. And my hats off to Anand and his friends for trying to make a difference. Let's give them a helping hand.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Zero Rupee note is a powerful idea. It sends a strong message to the corrupt official that he is being confronted by a person who is not afraid of standing against him and that he is at risk of being exposed by an organisation-5th Pillar. He may lose his job or worse may go to jail. To make it more effective, I suggeast,to print zero rupee note in duplicate with serial no., official's name hand written on it ,one to offer to the official and the other as a proof. Reply

Submitted by ED on
It is illegal to print and distribute any form of currency except by the Govt. of India. This is a criminal offence. There are better methods to fight corruption.

Though symbolic, at least the Zero Rupee Note takes the fight to the door steps of the Corrupt Officials. Like any other idea, its success will depend upon how many people take to it. However beyond this, we need to be prepared to tackle Corruption as a problem just like health, education & poverty. Read my complete take on the 'Zero Rupee Note' way of fighting Corruption in India - . Please leave your comments and suggestions. Sanjay Uvach

Submitted by Anonymous on
Corruption can not be eradicated from India. Middlemen are the agencies between Government Officials and the Public where the stakes are high. For Example, driving schools act as middleman between the applicant and the Motor Vehicle Inspector;an incometax practioner between ITO and the assessee. Similar examples can be multiplied. Corruption is rampant in courts and Police Deptt. The advocates are party to amny such corruptions. If I have any scores to settle with anybody, I can bribe the police, Municipality or any other authority and get appropriate show-cause notice or other notices issued for a consideration. Such is the state of affairs. Corruption is there in hospitals, mortuary and crematorium etc. etc. I can get any number of Original Death certificates if I pay 'appropriate' moneys to the people in charge. God only can save our country.

Submitted by Subbu on
On returning to India from a fairly corrupt free Gulf country, I had to go through the rituals of getting a driving license, an election ID card, a gas connection, electricity meter transfer, notarization of documents, paper supply, milk supply etc. etc. I was forewarned by neighbours and experienced well wishers that in every transaction there was an implicit expectation to be bribed to get the service in the normal course or to go through a series of delaying tactics that is designed to frustrate you into submission. I was duly advised to use an intermediary whose job is to pay the bribes on our behalf, get a fee for doing so and end up making us feel that we had nothing to do with the act of bribery. I managed to get a few of the 'challenges' done in person without paying a single rupee in bribe. Besides being pleasantly surprised, I then realised that it perhaps is the laziness and unwillingness from the well heeled sections of our society to do things themselves that has contributed to strengthen the corruption in the govt services. I have often heard the president (a wizened old ex-bank officer) of our apartment association giving the option of getting simple tasks done for a fee through an intermediary. This fee is normally well within the reach of the well paid professionals and they opt for it without a second thought in the name of saving time, effort and the perceived hassles. With initiatives from the Govt to simplify processes at key interaction points, it needs only a little initiative from us citizens to use them judiciously and spawn a culture of zero bribery for the generations to come.

Submitted by Anonymous on
It is instructive that while most of your participants go on and on about this hokey zero rupee note idea, only one appears to have taken the trouble to visit Divakar's Sathyagraha - a live, non cooperation struggle against corruption in India. The herd that will scramble to seek favors from a Big Power by flattering its silliness and ignore individuals like Divakar who are trying real things - that is the corruption. Maybe I am being too hard on the zero rupee note, but why not try the real thing ? Why not hand out real greenbacks ? Surely, the honest, suffering Indian may deserve them more than the so called "good Taliban " ? But the most repugnant aspect of the zero rupee note is that the giver of the note puts himself on a pedestal not through any struggle, evolution or suggestion of equity but merely through an alienated, mechanistic and capitalist process. The fact that neither the President nor the Prime Minister of India have been able to respond to Divakar's documented criticism indicates the awful grimness of the abject helplessness of the Indian state in dealing with its lawlessness. If the President and Prime Minister are "helpless", then God alone can help and zero rupee notes are merely cute distractions.

A depressing number of commenters here are saying, "It won't work." This despite the article giving examples of it working. Cognitive disconnect there. Granted there's no statistical study here, but one other thing I notice about the naysayers: they all assume classic rational self-profiting economic behavior is operating here. They're saying it won't work because corruption is so widespread it can safely be ignored by corrupt officials, or corrupt officials will become hardened, etc. This is not what is happening, at least not from my read of the article. What is happening is a collective appeal to conscience through the vehicle of public shaming. And that is a great cause for optimism. A major reason for the success stories of the zero rupee note, I suspect, are due to the fact that bribery is so obviously wrong as a matter of conscience, that when the bribe-takers are confronted in a clear way about their wrongdoing, they know they have been called out--not by a court or a cop, but by the court of public opinion and a jury of their peers. Bribe-seekers almost always seek out dark places and speak quietly. Partly out of fear of being caught by government officials or cops; but also out of fear of being caught by their fellow villagers, whom they are ripping off. Being forced into the sunlight in front of their peers has to have a very socializing effect on them. I'm not saying fear and self-serving profit motives don't have a place, they do. But I think public shaming and the call to a deeper, more basic feeling about what's right--ethics if you will--is also at work here.

Submitted by Prabhu on
There might have been one or two instances where the zero Rupee note made an impact, but more often than not, you'll be lucky if you dont end up receiving the choicest of abuses from the corrupt official! If you persist with such idealogical pursuits in places like the RTO office or Passport Office or Registrar's Office, you'll probably end up getting beaten up by the numerous goons and middle men whose sole means of making a living is on thriving on the corruption of the officials working there. If I try to get a passport renewed and NO bribe is asked, I'll be actually suspicious of the validity of the renewed passport handed over to me! Such is the way corruption has seeped into the government offices in India! Good luck with the zero Rupee note!

Submitted by Shezaad on
This is an interesting concept, can be used at the level of petty corruption like the lady in the story. Am not convinced, like Prabhu in the above post that it is applicable at the mid-bureaucratic level. However, I do want to touch on the idea of mid level bureaucratic corruption as a conflict management mechanism, especially in the case of India. The idea that the citizen/consumer can avail of a service, albiet through corrupt means but the basis of class and money rather than caste, language or religon. Further, this idea propagates that individuals can succeed in such a society based on their paying power (something that is within their control) rather than on an inherited identity. I look forward to your comments

Submitted by BillT on
And if an official - elected or appointed, policeman, etc. - isn't corrupt, another need is something to silently give to the briber. Depends on the degree, but I support entrapment if necessary, followed by public service sentencing, banning from any organization bidding on public work.

Submitted by Tahir Hussain on
No doubt it's good idea, but I would like to suggest to change the shape as it look like orginal currency note. You know well in small towns and rural areas the people are not educated and can be decived very easily. This note might be misused in that case. Avoide such things with cause future problem. Also such note will not be protected by the Satate Bank of India.

Submitted by Vinita on
Kudos to the professor whose idea this was. Kudos to Vijay Anand and 5th Pillar for implementing such a great idea and empowering those in need. I am most proud of the brave citizens who have used this tool. I wish someone would figure out a way to use the zero rupee note to do away with the dowry system in India. Any ideas anyone?

Surely the official involved has to have a sense of shame. I would be interested to see the reaction of the first Nigerian official to be handed a zero naira note.

That's true that corrupt officials seldom encounter resistance by ordinary people that they become scared when people have the courage to show their zero rupee notes, effectively making a strong statement condemning bribery. Nice blog.

Submitted by Selvakumar on
Please visit and contact them for the Zero Rupee Note. You can also ask for a bunch of notes if you can distribute it to people around you like your friends, relatives, students, etc. You can also check out the website that has zero valued currency for all the countries.

Submitted by HCAM on
I come from a country where corruption is transparent, what i mean is that bribery is part of the negotiation, part of the due diligence. For example, the mayor of a place gets a cut for every infrastructure development happening in its town/city and more so at congress and senate level. Apparently it is standard practice. It is allowed by government as the officials at all levels are all corrupt bar those few who have conscience. Corruption in the Philippines comes in different shapes and sizes and is endemic at all sectors, private and public. The majority of the people are so immuned to it that they couldn't care less as long as they have meals on the table everyday. For a lot people below poverty line, that is even a luxury. If you apply some of the suggestions here, ie improving the conditions of government employees to prevent them from extorting from the poor, will only exacerbate the situation. Without the filipino overseas workers' remittances, the country is bankcrupt. If the system is changed, it will take generations for positive results to show. Unfortunately for the Philippines and its people, the ones lurking in the shadows to take over, have the same genetic makeup.

I agree with. Probably it is because the corruption made by higher official are so obvious. The current administration is rather geared to erasing this harsh mentality on the Government, but the results would still take time before they can be clearly seen. The latest survey shows that people believe in the current administration. Let's hope they can deliver what they have promised otherwise, it will be another broken hope.

The efforts of your organization are commendable. In fact my NGO which has been combating corruption in Cameroon for 11 years hopes to learn much from you. Corruption in Cameroon is not only institutionalized but has become a cherished national insignia. It fights the poor, the expatriate as soon as you step your leg at our airports, our streets, hospitals, schools etc. The Civil Society must be innovative like 5 Pillars in order to conquer. Best wishes.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Hi, I think we should all need to open the eyes to reality... If I dont bribe or grease the hands of Govt official someone else will. There are 100Crore people living in this country and 95crores are poor who will not worry about paying to get the work done. If I dont pay someone else will and then I will not get my business or work done... So Thanks Mr. Anand (Vijay) but No Thanks for this noble Idea. If everyone stops I will else I the motto


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