The fifth pillar of Indian democracy: channeling people power against corruption

The name 5th Pillar represents the organization’s central idea; that people have the power to change the fundamental conditions that corruption depends on for its existence

Matt Mulberry
6 August 2012

History, particularly India’s history, has shown us that people power can be a formidable force when pitted against the injustices of a dictator, regime, or foreign occupation. But how can these power dynamics be applied to struggles against a more insidious foe like corruption? 

India may be the world’s largest democratic society but that doesn't mean that fighting corruption there is any easier. If anything it makes the struggle more complex. Corruption has now settled into almost every corner of India’s vast bureaucracy. It’s got so bad in recent years that now nearly half of India’s population has had firsthand experience in paying bribes. Since 1995 Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index has been ranking countries/territories “based on how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be.” In 2011 Indian citizens gave their country a rating of 3.1 out of 10 (10 being least corrupt). This score ranks India 95th out of the 183 countries measured in the study.

The costs of widespread corruption are hard to quantify, but it is easy to connect the dots between these illicit activities and a wide array of social and economic hardships that consistently materialize in their wake. Some sources estimate that public officials skim off more than 18 billion USD annually: others say that if you include the entire underground economy, that number amounts to roughly half of the nation’s GDP or 640 billion USD. The bribe system often dictates the way in which government officials make decisions on land development, government contracts, and who receives treatment at government hospitals. 

Corruption can also lead to violence and even death. In September 2011 a truck driver was killed by a transport official that had demanded a bribe. When the truck driver refused to pay the bribe the official inflicted lethal head injuries upon the man. This was the second killing of this nature in less than a month. The authorities took no interest in either killing until fellow truck drivers blockaded a major highway and agreed to move only after charges were filed against the suspects.  

All of this is a clear indication that the question of how to effectively fight corruption still looms large over India. But it is also a testament to the ineffectiveness of traditional solutions that have been put forth by governments and institutions thus far. However these conditions have challenged many grassroots organizations, civic groups, and social movements to come up with innovative ways of mobilizing people against corruption.

The organization 5th Pillar is one of India’s new and innovative anti-corruption organizations. Since it’s founding in 2008 its mission has been to, “Encourage, enable, and empower every citizen of India to eliminate corruption on all levels of society.” The name 5th Pillar represents the organization’s central idea; that people have the power to change the fundamental conditions that corruption depends on for its existence, and that popular mobilization against corruption will strengthen the four traditional pillars of India’s democracy.

The organization can be described as ‘bottom-up’ because its methods focus on addressing the fundamental social, economic, and political conditions that make communities, and institutions hospitable breeding grounds for corruption. Vijay Anand, the President and Co-Founder of 5th Pillar, says that the most significant precondition is the lack of information. Thus education and information are the two most critical elements of 5th Pillar’s strategy. 

Anand says that above all else citizens need to know their rights. In the early 2000s a nonviolent movement for government transparency won a significant victory when the Right to Information Act was passed in 2005. Since then organizers have continued advancing the cause by winning additional smaller victories along the way. 

5th Pillar regularly conducts free trainings on how to use the Right to Information Act. It only takes a single three-hour session for citizens to learn about the new rights granted to them under RTI. They also learn how to write letters requesting government documents, and how to sign RTI petitions. Anand says that this has been a very effective tool because an official will often not go through with an act of corruption if they sense that a citizen is even slightly intent on exposing corrupt activities via public documents. Also, evidence of past instances can be identified at any time in the future by citizens looking for discrepancies in the public records. 

Like other societies India has been dealing with corruption for a long time, and because of this feelings of disenchantment, disengagement, and hopelessness are prevalent especially within the older generations. But Anand has a great deal of faith in India’s current generation of young people. They simply haven’t been around long enough to lose their ideals and thus have a much greater level of enthusiasm and interest about working toward a corruption-free future. This particular generation also comes with a few new ‘bells and whistles;’ they’re internet and tech savvy, interconnected, better educated, and more internationally focused. All of this contributes to what Anand has described as the ‘ripple effect.’ He’s observed that when one youth stands up to corruption other youths in his or her community routinely follow suit which over a short time establishes new norms with these networks. 

Youth education begins via 5th Pillar’s Freedom from Corruption campaign aimed at teaching college students about the effects of corruption. Young people are also taught how to correctly go about obtaining government documents or other forms of identification such a driver license or a passport. 

5th Pillar has also developed a tool that allows anyone to submit an anonymous report detailing an incident of corruption, bribery, or a scenario in which the government fails to function correctly. After receiving a request the organization will itself bring the problem to the government’s attention or report any illicit activities to authorities.

The goal of all of this education is to incite citizens to reevaluate their relationship with their government, to understand that you as a citizen have rights, and that the government is there to serve you; not the other way around. Anand says that in the end, all of this leads to empowerment because it helps people break out of the ‘fear psychosis’ that has caused Indian citizens to tacitly accept corruption as a way of life.

5th Pillar understands that building unity and solidarity against corruption is critical to expanding the movement’s nonviolent capacities. To further cultivate a sense of solidarity 5th pillar has created a zero rupee note. It looks like any other Indian currency note complete with a picture of Gandhi on the front. The note also displays information about the organization along with the words “I promise to neither accept nor give bribes.” The idea is that when a government official demands a bribe from an ordinary citizen, the citizen can present that official with a zero rupee note.

The note is a powerful symbol communicating a person’s unwillingness to comply with illicit activities; but its most important message says ‘I’m not alone; an entire community stands behind me.’ There are more than 2, 000,000 zero rupee notes in circulation today and they’ve been responsible for countless success stories. Anand says that people who’ve presented zero rupee notes are often treated with great respect by the officials that have demanded bribes. Officials immediately regret bribing the person and they want to talk and give the person tea and try to convince them not to report them so that they can keep their jobs.

The most recent Transparency International Corruption Perception Index begins by acknowledging the significance of emerging people power movements within global struggle against corruption. It states “Public outcry at corruption, impunity and economic instability sent shockwaves around the world in 2011. Protests in many countries quickly spread to unite people from all parts of society. Their backgrounds may be diverse, but their message is the same: more transparency and accountability is needed from our leaders.” 

Anand believes that there is a tremendous potential for this knowledge to spread and for participation to increase. There are many NGO’s and organizations working in India on various issues; health, education, housing, and labour. Anand says that they should all be focused on tackling the issue of corruption because it is, in many cases, at the root of these problems. Knowing this has helped other anti-corruption struggles swell their ranks.  Anand has grasped the fact that framing corruption as an issue that touches everyone could potentially lower the movement’s ‘barrier of entry’ to include anyone who aspires to live in a more just society.  


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