NEW DELHI — What good is a currency that is not even worth the paper
it's printed on?
That's the intriguing question raised by the new "zero rupee note" now
circulating in southern India. It looks just like the country's 50
rupee bill but with some crucial differences: It is printed on just
one side on plain paper, it bears a big fat "0" denomination, and it
isn't legal tender.
The notes do, however, have value to the people who carry them.
They're designed as a radical new response to the pervasive problem of
petty corruption. Citizens are encouraged to hand the notes to public
officials in response to the bribery demands that are almost
inescapable when dealing with the government here. Bribes for access
to services are so common they even have an accepted euphemism —
asking for money "for tea."
The notes, printed and distributed by a good-government organization
called 5th Pillar, include the phrase that the bearer "promises to
neither accept nor give a bribe." The idea is that by handing one of
these zero rupee bills to an official, a citizen can register a silent
protest — and maybe even shame or scare a corrupt bureaucrat into
doing his duty without demanding a bribe for it.
In one sense, the idea seems absurd — fighting a serious problem like
entrenched corruption with something that looks like a prank.
But remarkably, the zero rupee note appears to work, as 5th Pillar
says it has found in hundreds of cases
And in its success, the worthless bill is upending the conventional
wisdom that cleaning up petty corruption is a monumental task
requiring complicated and expensive solutions. Along with the success
of some other simple anticorruption ideas being tried in other
countries, the zero rupee note is reinforcing research widely
considered to hold promise in a vexing global battle: Big improvements
in ending corruption, it suggests, can come from small changes in the
environment that allows it to happen.
To understand why this idea is so revolutionary, it helps to
understand how pervasive corruption is in a country like India, and
how helpless most people feel about fighting it.
As in many developing countries, Indian officials tend to regard
little payouts as almost a prerogative of the job. Brazenly asking for
"tea money" for processing a housing application or registering a
business is standard operating procedure in many government offices.
Those who have government jobs will often have had to pay large bribes
to state politicians to get them, so these employees, in turn, feel
they must earn that money back by soliciting bribes from average
citizens. Transparency International, the global anticorruption
organization, found that petty corruption in India is particularly
rampant when citizens have to deal with the police, land registration,
and housing authorities.
Since even small bribes can often be out of reach for those living on
less than a dollar a day, that means many of the world's poorest are
denied basic services to which they're legally entitled, such as a
copy of a birth certificate, connection to a municipal water supply,
or even access to medical care. "For the affluent, corruption is at
worst a nuisance; for the salaried middle class, it can be an
indignity and a burden; but for the poor, it is often a tragedy,"
Shashi Tharoor, a former United Nations spokesman who is now a junior
minister in India's Cabinet, wrote on his popular blog last year.
At a broader level, corruption can make a significant dent in a
developing country's economy. The World Bank has estimated that
corruption can shave a full percentage point from a country's GDP
growth in a given year, a difference that can amount to tens of
billions of dollars for a nation like India.
The usual tools used to fight corruption operate from the top down,
and tend to be expensive and time-consuming to implement. One common
approach is to use technology, such as computerized systems to process
things like railway ticket sales or requests for copies of land deed
records, taking corrupt humans out of the bureaucratic machinery
altogether. Another is enacting good governance reforms, such as
independent corruption investigators, higher public sector salaries to
decrease the incentives for bribery, and streamlined regulations to
eliminate unnecessary licenses or permissions.
The zero rupee note is different: It is a low-cost, low-tech solution
that works from the bottom up, not the top down. The note was first
conceived in 2001 by Satindar Mohan Bhagat, a professor of physics at
the University of Maryland, who was dismayed by the constant bribe
demands he had to contend with on trips back to his native India. He
began distributing the zero rupee note to other Indian expats in the
Washington, D.C., area, encouraging them to use the bills to resist
paying bribes whenever they traveled back home. Among those Bhagat met
at Indian community events in Washington was Vijay Anand, a software
programmer and systems administrator, who had moved to the United
States in 1997.
Anand was also deeply troubled by the extent of corruption he
encountered in India. "We like to call corruption India's national
language," he said in an interview. And in 2006, when Anand decided to
move back to India, he wanted to do something to change India for the
better. "After living in the US, I realized that India needs to imbibe
a lot of qualities from the West that are often ignored," he said —
meaning, among them, ethics in public service and accountability in
Anand soon met some social entrepreneurs in the southern Indian city
of Chennai who had formed a group called 5th Pillar; he ended up as
its president, and thought it might be worth trying Bhagat's idea of a
zero rupee note.
With Bhagat's permission — and after securing a legal opinion that
printing the notes would not violate Indian counterfeiting laws — 5th
Pillar began printing zero rupee notes and distributing them
throughout the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The first batch of
25,000 was given away in 2007. 5th Pillar went to villages, schools,
and university campuses and held 90-minute teach-ins to educate people
about the problem of corruption, at the end of which they gave away
the notes. The group also approached people on the street in public
places to give the notes away.
Soon, people began coming back with success stories, and asking for
more zero rupee notes to use. The group has now distributed close to 1
million notes, Anand said, and has begun branching out from Tamil Nadu
to neighboring states, including Maharashtra, home to India's bustling
financial megapolis, Mumbai.
Raj Rajkumar, a small businessman in the southern Indian city of
Coimbatore, is among those who have used the zero rupee note
successfully. In a phone interview, he said he expected to be asked
for a bribe last October when he went to register a nonprofit charity
that he and several colleagues had established to help the disabled.
And in fact, when he and the six other trustees of the charity arrived
at the registry office, the clerk told them that there were some
"formalities" that might hold up processing the application unless the
group handed over 3,000 rupees (about $70) "for tea."
Instead of handing the clerk the money, he slipped him the zero rupee
note. The dumbstruck clerk, Rajkumar said, looked at the note and
initially insisted he was only asking for "a tip," not a bribe. But
when the supervising registrar overheard the conversation and examined
the zero rupee bill, she immediately ordered the clerk to process the
charity's certification. "Later the registrar told us that this was
the very first trust that had been ever registered without having to
pay a bribe," Rajkumar said.
This does not seem to be an isolated case: 5th Pillar claims to have
recorded hundreds of cases where citizens have managed to escape
paying bribes by handing over the bills. In one instance, a corrupt
bureaucrat apologized and returned money he had previously extorted
from a village to connect it to the electrical grid. In another, an
official who had just asked for "tea money" from an elderly woman
stood up, offered his seat to her, brought her a real cup of tea, and
then approved the loan she needed for her granddaughter to go to
college. 5th Pillar's success rate has not been independently
verified, but Anand said there have been almost no instances in which
someone has handed over a zero rupee note to an official and the
official has continued to insist on a bribe.
The zero rupee note has attracted attention from the World Bank, which
recently highlighted 5th Pillar's work on a widely read blog that
focuses on corruption. Anand said that 5th Pillar has also received
interest from anticorruption advocates in other countries, including
Argentina, Mexico, and Nepal.
The zero rupee note is not the only low-tech solution that has proved
surprisingly effective in combating petty corruption. In Kathmandu,
Nepal, staff at the international airport were recently issued pants
without pockets in an effort to curb bribery. In Kazakhstan and
Malaysia, governments have experimented with making officials wear
badges that read "I am against corruption."
Admittedly, some of these low-tech, simple solutions have limits. None
of them are likely to reduce large-scale corruption such as
multimillion dollar kickbacks for road or defense contracts. Their
success may also be fleeting. Fumiko Nagano, who writes the World
Bank's anticorruption blog, has called ideas such as pocketless
uniforms and anticorruption slogans "a band-aid covering up an
infection," likely to stop working as soon as enforcement slips.
The zero rupee note and the other simple solutions to corruption,
however, have social science on their side. Much recent research has
found that people's perceptions of social norms — the basic unwritten
rules that govern behavior within a society — are the biggest
determinants of unethical behavior. If a person believes corruption is
the norm, and thinks that everyone else is doing it, then he is far
more likely to seize the opportunity to solicit a bribe. But the same
research shows that it can be surprisingly easy to alter these norms.
Experiments have shown that simply reminding someone of what is
ethical before presenting her with a corruption opportunity greatly
decreases unethical behavior.
The zero rupee note does this explicitly, with a printed reminder of
what's right. It also may trigger a "fear factor" — experiments
suggest that reminding people they might actually be caught has an
even more powerful effect on reducing corrupt behavior. 5th Pillar's
Anand said that the zero rupee note — a piece of paper with the
official appearance of currency and a bold ethics reminder —
definitely scares bureaucrats. "They don't know how to react," he
said, "so they think it is easier to react in a positive way and get
the job done rather than risk trouble."
Far more important may be the note's effect on the citizen using it.
Anupama Jha, the head of the Indian arm of Transparency International,
said she likes the zero rupee note because it changes the perceptions
that citizens are powerless to resist bribe demands and that bribery
is acceptable. Research has shown that this, in turn, can have
profound implications for the overall level of corruption in society.
Using game theory to model a corrupt society, Cristina Bicchieri, a
professor of philosophy and legal studies at the University of
Pennsylvania, and Carlo Rovelli, a physicist and philosopher at the
University of Pittsburgh, found in a 1995 study that the introduction
of just a few honest individuals who refuse to go along with
corruption will, over time, result in honesty becoming the new social
The key to getting people to stand up in the face of bribe demands,
according to Anand, is letting them know they are not alone. The zero
rupee note does this by showing citizens that there is an
organization, namely 5th Pillar, that will back them up. "It tells the
corrupt official: I am not alone, I am part of an organization," Anand
said. And 5th Pillar does go after corrupt officials, helping to
conduct sting operations along with government law enforcement
Nagano, the World Bank anticorruption blogger, praised the zero rupee
note because it depends less on deterring corrupt officials than it
does on convincing citizens to stand together and resist. "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," she wrote in praise of the
zero rupee project. "Once they realize that they are not alone, they
also realize that this battle is not unbeatable."
Jeremy Kahn is a journalist based in New Delhi.