Designed to look like standard Indian currency, zero-rupee notes are larger and printed on thicker paper. That discourages folding, which is a common way for bribes to be passed. Photo: Rebecca Hale, NGM Staff
In India, where corruption costs the public and private sectors millions of dollars a year, demands for petty bribes are frequently signaled in code: “Take care of me” or, for a two-note handout, “Make Gandhi smile twice.” Illegal demands by police and bureaucrats are “deeply ingrained in the culture,” says anticorruption crusader Vijay Anand, and are “taken as the norm.”
But 5th Pillar, Anand’s grassroots citizens group, is trying to create a new norm—by printing and passing out notes worth nothing at all (above). Since 2007, 5th Pillar has distributed 1.3 million zero-rupee bills. People give them as a polite protest to officials trying to squeeze extra payment for routine services like issuing driver’s licenses or loans. The effect has been to shame or scare some public servants—who can go to jail if they’re caught—into honest behavior. The zero-rupee note, says anticorruption researcher Fumiko Nagano, emboldens people to assert their rights, because when they’re backed up by 5th Pillar, “they realize they are not alone.”
Nor is India. Zero-currency notes are spreading to help fight corruption in Mexico and Nepal as well—an affirmation of nonviolent resistance that would surely have made Gandhi smile for real. —Hannah Bloch
Can’t Vietnam have some initiative like this too?