Fighting corruption in India
A zero contribution
An unconventional way to combat petty corruption
Jan 28th 2010 | From The Economist print edition
A ZERO-SUM game is one in which the gains of one player are exactly balanced by the losses of another. In India a local non-governmental organisation has invented a new sort of zero sum which, it hopes, will leave everyone better off: the zero-rupee note.
What on earth is the point of that? The note is not legal tender. It is simply a piece of paper the colour of a 50-rupee note with a picture of Gandhi on it and a value of nothing. Its aim is to shame corrupt officials into not demanding bribes.
The idea was dreamt up by an expatriate Indian physics professor from the University of Maryland who, travelling back home, found himself harassed by endless extortion demands. He gave the notes to the importuning officials as a polite way of saying no. Vijay Anand, president of an NGO called 5th Pillar, thought it might work on a larger scale. He had 25,000 zero-rupee notes printed and publicised to mobilise opposition to corruption. They caught on: his charity has distributed 1m since 2007.
One official in Tamil Nadu was so stunned to receive the note that he handed back all the bribes he had solicited for providing electricity to a village. Another stood up, offered tea to the old lady from whom he was trying to extort money and approved a loan so her granddaughter could go to college.
Mr Anand thinks the notes work because corrupt officials so rarely encounter resistance that they get scared when they do. And ordinary people are more willing to protest, since the notes have an organisation behind them and they do not feel on their own. Simple ideas like this don’t always work. When India’s government put online the names of officials facing trial for corruption, the list became a convenient guide for whom to bribe. But, says Fumiko Nagano of the World Bank, transforming social norms is the key to fighting petty corruption and the notes help that process. They are valueless, but not worthless.