How a professor started a campaign to fight everyday corruption in India


This page in:

Also available in Spanish,  French and Arabic
Photo credit: 5th Pillar

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.


Related story: Six charts on how corruption impacts firms worldwide​

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.

What do you think? Tell us in the comments. 

Tweet these:

Corrupt practices are often so institutionalized that citizens view them as a permanent fixture.  

Transforming social norms is the key to fighting corruption. 

The #Indian zero-rupee note carries the slogan, "Eliminate corruption at all levels". 

​Some officials advertise that they are not corrupt by displaying zero-rupee notes in their offices. 


Alice Lloyd

Online Communications

UST - Social Enterprises
December 06, 2015

The creator of this note is Professor Mohan Bhagat from University of Maryland and AID India and would be nice if his name is acknowledged.
Thank you

European person
December 03, 2015

This is really interesting topic. Once again Ms. Alice you got the point with this text, bravo.
Next time, can you write about refugees from Middle East and your view how is that going to affect Europe and the bank system.

Shaazka Beyerle
December 05, 2015

The 5th Pillar is an excellent example of grass-roots mobilization to impact corruption, injustice and poverty. I researched 5th Pillar and many other cases around the world in: Curtailing Corruption: People Power for Accountability and Justice.

Narayan Manandhar
December 02, 2015

I feel this is similar to British comedian performing stunt with Sepp Blatter throwing fake currency notes all around, humiliating him in front of the media. But at the end you need a strong investigating and prosecuting agency to deal with corruption problem. In the absence of such agency, these stunts fade like fads. At the start, I was really impressed by anti-corruption stickers, logos and stunts but now I take it as some jokes to laugh with.

Kris Dev
December 16, 2015

Certainly it's a laudable idea. Being an RTI Activist, I've been associated with anti-corruption from 2005. To my knowledge 'Zero- Currency Note'has hardly had an impact. On the contrary, it may be prudent to demand banning of currency circulation to banish corruption. Making all transactions transparent using Biometric Smart Card linked to a money account can truly eradicate corruption and establish true democracy.

George PS
August 22, 2016

Innovative, deep penetrating, inspiring idea! Appreciate much!

Vinicius Cunha Ferreira
August 27, 2017

I feel that corruption it os hard to tackle because the majority of the population does not understand the law. Tem, It ends on a discussion of what is worse: to shunt the money or to cheat the public shopping. However,I think transparency it is a key tool to incentivate the public discussion.