Using fake money to protest prevalence of bribery in public service sectors

The Anti Corruption movement, 5thPillar recently began distributing “Zero Rupee” notes to Indian citizens to give to any civil servant they come across that asks for a bribe. Corruption in the form of bribery is commonplace in India particularly in Chennai where the campaign began, and the Zero Rupee Note serves as a protest of this trend.

The dominant baksheesh culture—tipping, charitable giving and ultimately bribery in the case of public officials—has overwhelmed India for years and is especially straining on the lower classes. This kind of corruption denies people their entitlement to basic and need based services, many of which may be free by law, resulting in the poor finding themselves at the losing end of the corruption chain. Bribes were demanded for things like electricity connections, as well as getting ones car out of the impound lot. Every encounter with civil servant came with an extra fee, which each individual directly profited from. The Zero Rupee note looks identical to a 50 Rupee note with zero (0) instead of the number 50 and a logo for the 5th Pillar in the corner. The development of the note was a response to everyday corruption. For people who didn’t know what else to do or did not know how to stand up to these people, the Zero Rupee serves as a concrete “no” to the bribe request.

In the case of one woman living in Chennai City, India, she came across the Compulsive Bribe culture when attempting to get a title in her name for the land she owned in order to use it as collateral for a bank loan for her granddaughter’s college. The public service of obtaining the title should have been free of charge but instead the grandmother was asked to pay a fee to the Revenue Department official for his services. A year and a half passed and because of her inability to pay the bribe the woman was unable to receive the title and finance her granddaughter’s college tuition.

This all changed when the grandmother came into contact with the NGO the 5th Pillar which circulates the Zero Rupee notes specifically to deal with problems like this. Armed with her own Zero Rupee Note she handed it to the official who had been denying her service without a bribe and his response was awe. Surprised by her defiance, the official offered the woman a cup of tea with a seat to wait and eventually provided her with the long awaited land title, retracting his bribe request entirely.

In numerous other cases, the use of the Zero Rupee Note tactic has resulted in breaking down the bribe culture as one civil servant after another has received the note. The impact of this tactic has been strong and given people the opportunity to regain control of their daily lives in India. Protesting with something tangible has proven to be a powerful force, powerful enough to affect the actions of civil servants.

According to the 5th Pillar movement, they see the issue of corruption in the form of bribery as a worldwide issue—not just India. Therefore, they have designed “zero” bills for several different countries, presumably in hopes of transferring this tactic to a larger, international community to put an end to corruption by bribery.

This tactic has been effective in India in part because of the laws against the use of bribery which are punishable by jail time. This tactic then, would be most easily transferred to countries where there is a similar culture of fear for getting caught asking for bribes. The tactic also requires direct contact from person to person in handing over the Zero Rupee and may be less practical at higher, more complex levels of corruption.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.