Monday, February 15, 2010

The mysterious reappearance of the zero-rupee note

The blogosphere is abuzz with the story of the zero-rupee note printed by an Indian NGO called 5th pillar to shame the corrupt Indian bureaucracy. It has been reported on by the British, Australian and Indian papers. I can trace back the news to a press realease by the World Bank on December 29, 2009. From there on, it seems to have gone viral.

Only, this initiative is not new. The NGO 5th pillar tried the same campaign in 2007, and it was reported in the Times and few other sites. In fact, the poignant story that the World Bank’s press release begins with – of an old woman in Chennai desperately trying to get her land title from some government office – had also been mentioned in the Times article in 2007. For whatever reason, it has taken the NGO nearly three years to get its campaign noticed, though it is now presenting it as a new initiative.

I don’t think the campaign will go anywhere beyond the sound bytes. And the reason why I believe so is a conversation I’ve had time and again with friends in India. Yes, they don’t like paying bribes. But they like following rules even less. Bribery is an easy way to enjoy the exhilaration of breaking rules for a small price. When you can pay a smallish bribe and get away with anything – speeding, getting papers falsified, jumping queues, getting taxes exempt, gaining government contracts easily – then why get rid of the system. I’ve actually had Indian friends here look back with nostalgia to the culture of bribery back home that made life so simple. Pay a bit of bribe, and get hassle free, quick service. (Indian government officials can be unusually resourceful in finding ways to get your work done, once they have been properly remunerated.)

So 5th pillar might as well save its rupees, I'd say. It isn't just about people being happy to ask for bribes. It is also about people being happy paying bribes.

PS: No, I've never actually paid a bribe to get any service. But maybe, that is why I never got any service.

No comments: