My father pays a bribe every month. He is a teacher in a government-supported school. The school clerk needs to collect the cheque for the staff salary from the District Education Office. The officials there invariably ask for 2 to 5% of the total amount. If the school declines, they delay the cheque by months. The school is forced to bribe them every month.
My car pollution check-up had expired. I thought I would have to pay a fine of Rs3000. But a mere 300 bucks as bribe and the official let me go. I paid it to get away from the pain of going to the transport office, waiting in queues, paying fines etc.
From paying an extra few bucks to the telephone man to ensure that it is activated (and more importantly remains so), to slipping something extra for the cooking gas cylinder that you are entitled to but which might never reach you if the delivery man doesn’t get his ‘tip’ every time he makes a trip to your home – India’s poor and middle classes have to bribe their way to all basic amenities. Every Indian at some point has asked this question – why should I have to pay a bribe to get what I am entitled to? Ramesh Ramanathan, however, did more than ask the question: he created a movement around it – a citizen’s initiative through a website called ipaidabribe.com.
Ramanathan, a dedicated social activist and founder of the Bangalore-based non-profit organisation, Janagraha, which runs ipaidabribe.com, has been working for years with citizens and the government to change the quality of life in India’s cities and towns. And since bribery is the most common form of corruption in India, directly affecting the life of its citizens, Ramanathan started brainstorming with his team for an effective way to empower the individual while coming down on the perpetrators. Thus was born the bribe-and-tell website through which Janagraha is trying to tackle corruption, by harnessing the collective energy of citizens.
“Everyone is a benefactor, perpetrator or victim of corruption. We started Ipaidabribe.com to empower the individual,” Ramanathan says.
In all the above cases, the bribe amount was between $10 - 20. But when you look at the bigger picture, the amount Indians pay in bribes every year is shocking. According to Transparency International India (TII), in their India Corruption Study 2008 on below the poverty line (BPL) households, BPL households in India spent over $196 million paying bribes of which $49.5 million went from the poorest people simply to avail themselves of the eleven basic public services such as the hospital treatment, education and water that they are entitled to. According to a TII estimate, nearly $1778 is paid out annually by a single truck in bribes at toll plazas. With around 3,600,000 trucks currently operational, the total in bribery works out to more than $5 billion a year.
Anupama Jha, executive director of Transparency International India says, “Corruption in any form deepens poverty and adversely effects development. Dishonesty and corruption has become a way of life in India. People have become less sensitive to corruption. People have accepted bureaucratic and political corruption in a way that is dangerous.”
Instances like the alleged misuse of DFID funds, involving the reported misappropriation of funds for the Commonwealth Games to be held next month, and the accusations of tax evasion around the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament currently under investigation readily come to mind. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently warned against the damaging effect of bribes, extortion and fraud – saying that it will harm India's future economic prospects. Transparency International puts India 84th on its corruption perception index with a 3.4-point rating, out of a best possible score of 10. India’s answer to any kind of problem till now has been to pass a new law, constitute a new board or institute an inquiry.
However, the need of the hour is that the government tightens its rein on these agencies. As Jha says, “we have to promote merit- based promotion in bureaucracy. We have to make the judiciary and politicians more accountable. Anti-corruption tools, such as the right to information and social audit, must be used effectively. Transparency International has developed two of these - one to check corruption in public procurement (an Integrity Pact) and another to promote political accountability (a Development Pact). Citizen participation in democracy also has to be strengthened. Right now, there are not enough non-profit, civil society organisations working on good governance.”
Ipaidabribe.com is trying to fill this vacuum. The format is simple and conversational. People are free to register any recent or old bribes they have paid. The site keeps details anonymous to help more people come forward with their experiences without the fear of repercussions. It allows citizens to report on the nature, number, pattern, types, location, frequency of actual acts of corruption and the amount involved. This data will take a snapshot of bribes occurring across the country. “It will be used to argue for a reduction in bribe-related exchanges in favour of more consistent standards of law enforcement and regulation. This site takes a step towards putting a stop to the false economy and under-the-table dealings,” says Ramanathan.
The website was launched in mid-August and has already received more than 500 entries. At present, however, its reach is limited as it is only accessible to the net-savvy, English-speaking population. And as you might expect, the vast majority of people who find themselves victims of bribery hail from outside this socio-economic category. But Ipaidabribe.com will soon be available in various other Indian languages, and it will also reach out to a wider audience by making the service available on the mobile phone for people with limited or no internet access.
“In a democracy there is no silver bullet that will solve such a situation. We can empower people and provide them with a platform to enable them to play a constructive role. Any one initiative cannot dramatically change things. But we have to keep trying, keep doing something,” Ramanathan says.
India has witnessed several such innovative anti-corruption drives over the last few years. Three years back, a Chennai-based non-profit organization, 5th Pillar launched a campaign called the zero rupee note campaign. 5th Pillar distributed rupee notes with the denomination ‘0.’ The idea behind the campaign was that whenever someone asked for a bribe, they were to be presented with a zero rupee note. That campaign has been going for three years now. They have so far printed around 150,000 notes. However, despite the stir it created at its inception – the hype surrounding it has now died down. Whether or not ipaidabribe.com will be able to cut through the greasy palms remains to be seen.