Shaming Bribe Takers with Zero Denomination Currency

A most curious post showed up on the site. It tells the story of 5th Pillar, a unique initiative to mobilize citizens to fight corruption in India.

According to Anand, the idea was first conceived by an Indian physics professor at the University of Maryland, who, in his travels around India, realized how widespread bribery was and wanted to do something about it. He came up with the idea of printing zero-denomination notes and handing them out to officials whenever he was asked for kickbacks as a way to show his resistance.

Anand took this idea further: to print them en masse, widely publicize them, and give them out to the Indian people. He thought these notes would be a way to get people to show their disapproval of public service delivery dependent on bribes.

The notes did just that. The first batch of 25,000 notes were met with such demand that 5th Pillar has ended up distributing one million zero-rupee notes to date since it began this initiative. Along the way, the organization has collected many stories from people using them to successfully resist engaging in bribery.

When confronted with a demand for a bribe, the citizen offers up a zero-rupee note. This act turns out to have serious, positive consequences. In one case, “a corrupt official in a district in Tamil Nadu was so frightened on seeing the zero rupee note that he returned all the bribe money he had collected for establishing a new electricity connection back to the no longer compliant citizen.”

The Power of Shame Over Corruption

The article suggests several reasons for the power of the zero-rupee notes. Corrupt officials become frightened of being discovered; they also don’t want to have disciplinary proceedings established.

But the most powerful reason, says the article, is that the fact of the many zero-rupee bills’ existence empowers citizens. They no longer feel alone, and therefore have the courage to stand up against corruption.

What I find interesting are the comments to the blogpost. About a third of them are skeptical, saying it won’t work—this after reading an article about how it does work. Others say it works temporarily, only new laws will work permanently, it’s only a novelty.

Even many who say it does work are prone to focus on the odds of getting caught—suggesting the zero-rupee notes alter the rational risk-taking behavior of the corrupt officials.

I suggest they’re over-thinking it. The power of the zero-rupee note is what the article said it was—the empowering of a disenfranchised group in a very public way.

Call it shaming.

It’s exactly what I wrote about the other day in the confusion over ethics and finance. In a western-driven world which worships rational analytics, ascribing all motives to deductive calculations of self-benefit, we tend to under-rate the impact of the moral disapproval of our peers.

Whether we’re talking about corrupt civil servants in Tamil Nadu, or self-aggrandizing employees in a US company, I think most people are still capable of being ashamed; and that shame comes from a larger group of human beings. In situations where the law seems behind the curve, a deeper sense of community can restore balance.

Shaming is the public expression of a community’s view; we shouldn’t under-estimate its power, for good and for bad.

1 reply
  1. Nils Montan
    Nils Montan says:

    I think you are right Charlie, we tend to over emphasis rational calculation when we ascribe motivation to others and under value the power of emotion and certain hardwired normative behavior.  I can picture a vignette with a poor Indian giving the corupt official the zero rupee note as a very moving and revealing short story.  I wish I had the talent to reveal the profound sense of revelation that would occur when the official looked at the actual value of what he had received.


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