Chennai: At the second-floor office of 5th Pillar, a three-year-old Chennai-based non-governmental organization (NGO), 40-year-old Vijay Anand vociferously evangelizes to a crowd of 25 people on a Saturday evening. He urges the group—a mix of students and working professionals who are there to learn about how to get information on public officials—to fight corruption and shame corrupt government workers by offering the zero- rupee note that contains the promise to neither accept nor pay a bribe.
“The zero-rupee note acts as an effective ice breaker and is a great tool that garners attention,” says Anand, who often keeps the note, which is as big as an oversized lottery ticket and contains the name and phone number of 5th Pillar, peeping out of his shirt pocket.
5th Pillar members distribute the zero-rupee notes in colleges and other public places. The NGO asks people to offer this note to rankle the conscience of government officials who deliberately delay a service in expectation of a bribe. Instead of screaming at an official for not doing his or her job, the note offers a form of silent and possibly effective protest.
Spreading awareness: 5th Pillar’s Vijay Anand with the zero-rupee notes. He urges people to fight corruption by offering the notes, which contain the promise to neither accept nor pay a bribe, to government officials. Pratap Vinagayam / Mint
Distributing one million such notes since 2006 in the 66-million-people state of Tamil Nadu could be termed as a drop in the ocean. And sceptics may roll their eyes at people taking shots at petty rupee bribes while top-level politicians roll in million-dollar kickbacks. Still, Anand’s efforts are vital at a time when a 2009 global corruption survey by Germany-based civil society group Transparency International shows that it is the poorest families that continue to be punished by petty bribe demands.
“Do parents pay a bribe so that a sick child can see the doctor or do they buy food for their family? It is simply unacceptable that families continue to face these decisions,” says Transparency International’s chairperson Huguette Labelle in the report that signalled that Indian public servants were perceived to be more corrupt than government officials in even strife-ridden Georgia and the small African kingdom of Swaziland.
Though 5th Pillar has been around for a few years, it recently attracted global attention after a World Bank blog wrote about it on 29 December and The Economist followed up with a report in its 30 January issue.
In 2004, when Chennai resident R. Shankar lost his ration card—a palm-sized notebook with details of his family and residence that guaranteed him foodgrain, sugar and kerosene at subsidized rates via the public distribution system—he didn’t think it would take almost six years before he would get a replacement.
“I was frustrated,” says the 49-year-old owner of a metalworking shop who makes Rs15,000 a month. “I had to lose at least a day’s earnings every time I went to the ration office. All they would say is that it is being printed. I was even willing to pay a bribe, but no one would come forward to accept it openly.”
Last August, he telephoned 5th Pillar after hearing about it on a television programme. On Shankar’s behalf, the NGO filed a right to information (RTI) petition using a 2005 law allowing Indians access to Central and state government records. The RTI document asked for the name of the person who verified Shankar’s residence (a requirement ahead of issuing the ration card), the number of days the official was at work and the exact date Shankar would get his ration card.
In two weeks’ time, Shankar got his ration card.
“Usually the delay in any service is because they expect a bribe,” says R.V. Nambi, a former social worker who volunteers with 5th Pillar. “When we question the ration office using the RTI, their mistakes are likely to be revealed and that too in writing. So, instead of spending time collecting extensive data to respond to the RTI petition that could get them to lose their job, they finish the much-delayed task for the complainant.”
Anand, a US-returned information technology professional, claims to have spent nearly Rs60 lakh of his savings since 2006 to run his seven-person office and on roadshows covering over 100 colleges in Tamil Nadu to circulate the zero rupee note, educating students and other people about the RTI Act, and to collect information on public officials who have amassed disproportionate amounts of wealth, before mailing the data to anti-corruption officials. He is now setting up 5th Pillar offices in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
But Anand, who spoke at the United Nations Convention against Corruption last November, is not satisfied with being an outsider. The anti-corruption activist recently started the Tamil Nadu wing of Andhra Pradesh-based Lok Satta party, which was established in 2006 by former civil servant Jayaprakash Narayan.
Fellow RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj, who founded citizens’ group Satark Nagrik Sangathan in Delhi seven years ago, doesn’t see a compulsion for NGOs to indulge in politics to catalyse change.
“I believe it is equally possible as a citizen to be monitor and be vigilant about what the government is doing from the outside,” says Bhardwaj who has met Anand and evinces interest in working on RTI Act-related issues with 5th Pillar in south India. “It is not necessary to enter party politics to effect a change.”
But 5th Pillar supporters see setting up a political party as the only way to step up the game, from sweeping petty bribes to vacuuming large-scale kickbacks.
“Vijay was thinking of going into politics and I hope he does,” says Mohan Bhagat, the 77-year-old University of Maryland professor who created the zero-rupee note in 2001 and willingly let Anand use it in his endeavour, in a phone interview from the US. “Because then he can push change from the inside.”