“An amount of wealth that enables an individual to reject traditional social behavior and niceties of conduct without fear of consequences.”
YEAH I’M NOT PAYING FOR THAT
ZERO RUPEE NOTE
Paying Zero for Public Services
BY Fumiko Nagano / 12.29.2009
Imagine that you are an old lady from a poor household in a town in the outskirts of Chennai city, India. All you have wanted desperately for the last year and a half is to get a title in your name for the land you own, called patta. You need this land title to serve as a collateral for a bank loan you have been hoping to borrow to finance your granddaughter’s college education. But there has been a problem: the Revenue Department official responsible for giving out the patta has been asking you to pay a little fee for this service. That’s right, a bribe. But you are poor (you are officially assessed to be below the poverty line) and you do not have the money he wants. And the most absurd part about the scenario you find yourself in is that this is a public service that should be rendered to you free of charge in the first place. What would you do? You might conclude, as you have done for the last 1-1/2 years, that there isn’t much you can do…but wait, you just heard about a local NGO by the name of 5th Pillar and it just happened to give you a powerful ally: a zero rupee note.
In Doha last month, CommGAP learned about the work of 5th Pillar, which has a unique initiative to mobilize citizens to fight corruption. In India, petty corruption is pervasive – people often face situations where they are asked to pay bribes for public services that should be provided free. 5th Pillar distributes zero rupee notes in the hopes that ordinary Indians can use these notes as a means to protest demands for bribes by public officials. I recently spoke with Vijay Anand, 5th Pillar’s president, to learn more about this fascinating initiative.
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.
One such story was our earlier case about the old lady and her troubles with the Revenue Department official over a land title. Fed up with requests for bribes and equipped with a zero rupee note, the old lady handed the note to the official. He was stunned. Remarkably, the official stood up from his seat, offered her a chair, offered her tea and gave her the title she had been seeking for the last year and a half to obtain without success. Had the zero rupee note reached the old lady sooner, her granddaughter could have started college on schedule and avoided the consequence of delaying her education for two years. In another experience, 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.
Anand explained that a number of factors contribute to the success of the zero rupee notes in fighting corruption in India. First, bribery is a crime in India punishable with jail time. Corrupt officials seldom encounter resistance by ordinary people that they become scared when people have the courage to show their zero rupee notes, effectively making a strong statement condemning bribery. In addition, officials want to keep their jobs and are fearful about setting off disciplinary proceedings, not to mention risking going to jail. More importantly, Anand believes that the success of the notes lies in the willingness of the people to use them. People are willing to stand up against the practice that has become so commonplace because they are no longer afraid: first, they have nothing to lose, and secondly, they know that this initiative is being backed up by an organization—that is, they are not alone in this fight.
This last point—people knowing that they are not alone in the fight—seems to be the biggest hurdle when it comes to transforming norms vis-à-vis corruption. For people to speak up against corruption that has become institutionalized within society, they must know that there are others who are just as fed up and frustrated with the system. Once they realize that they are not alone, they also realize that this battle is not unbeatable. Then, a path opens up—a path that can pave the way for relatively simple ideas like the zero rupee notes to turn into a powerful social statement against petty corruption.
Can this note stamp out corruption in a land where it’s the norm?
BY Ashling O’Connor / April 9, 2007
In the secret language of corruption in India, an official expecting a bribe will ask for Mahatma Gandhi to “smile” at him. The revered leader of the independence movement is on all denominations of rupee notes. With rampant dishonesty ingrained in the bureaucratic culture, an anticorruption group has decided to interpret the euphemism literally by issuing a zero-rupee note.
A direct copy of the 50-rupee note, including Gandhi’s portrait, it is designed to be handed out to officials who demand backhanders. In the place of the usual promise of redemption by the central bank governor, the new pledge is: “I promise to neither accept nor give bribe.”
5th Pillar, the organisation behind the initiative, says that the note will allow ordinary Indians to make a statement against corruption without provoking a confrontation with people in authority. It has printed 25,000 notes and is distributing them in the southern city of Chennai as part of a wider mission to stamp out corruption “at all levels of society”.
Vijay Anand, the president of 5th Pillar, said: “People have already started using them and it is working. One autorick-shaw driver was pulled over by a policeman in the middle of the night who said he could go if he was ‘taken care of’. The driver gave him the note instead. The policeman was shocked but smiled and let him go. The purpose of this is to instil confidence in people to say no to bribery. It is just a representation.”
The group says that it has checked its legal position carefully and is not deemed to be printing counterfeit money because the official design is on only one side. The other side carries its mission statement. G. Ramakrishnan, information commissioner of Tamil Nadu, described the note as “a symbol to express refusal to grease the palms of officials”.
Corruption is part of the daily routine in India. Whether an individual needs to get a phone line, renew a passport or dodge a speeding ticket, the process normally involves a bribe. Most officials get away with it because of a general lack of awareness about citizens’ rights. In 2005 the Right to Information Act was passed as a way of holding government departments, agencies and officials accountable. Citing the law, anyone can access government records within 30 days of their request. Yet the majority of the population have no idea how to use it in their everyday lives nor do they have access to the legal resources.
Last month 5th Pillar, which has 1,200 members and 6,000 online subscribers worldwide, opened drop-in centres staffed by volunteers able to help people to leverage the Act by drafting petitions and delivering them to the relevant government department. “We want to empower people to fight for their rights,” Mr Anand said. “One lady had been waiting a year for her land title and was told she would only receive it if she paid a 7,500-rupee ‘fee’. She went back to the office with one of our volunteers and got the document in 30 minutes without paying anything.”
— India regularly joins China and Russia at the top of the global bribery index
— Ordinary people pay bribes worth £2.5 billion a year for public services
— Bihar is the most corrupt state, Kerala the least
— Civil servants are poorly paid and open to temptation. Police are the most corrupt, followed by lower courts and land administration
— Traffic police pay to be posted at junctions that are fertile ground for kickbacks
— Every bag of cement that goes into Indian roads has involved a bribe
email : vijay [at] 5thpillar [dot] org / ENDcorruption [at] 5thpillar [dot] org
ZERO CURRENCIES (SELECT by COUNTRY)
Corruption (n.): the misuse of entrusted power for private gain
“Corruption in the form of bribery is prevalent throughout the world. On average in a country where corruption is a known occurrence around
$5 billion exchange hands every year. Corruption results in many problems for a country’s political, economic and social structures. If every one of us stops giving and taking bribes we can put an end to corruption in our country.
The zero currency note in your country’s currency is a tool to help you achive the goal of zero corruption. The note is a way for any human being to say NO to corruption without the fear of facing an encounter with persons in authority. Next time someone asks you for a bribe, just take your country’s zero currency note and hand it to them. This will let the other person know that you refuse to give or take any money in order to perform services required by law or to give or take money to do something illegal.”
CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX
Citizens United upholds institutional corruption
BY Aminu Gamawa / The Harvard Law Record / January 28, 2010
What started as a 90-minute political campaign documentary against then- presidential candidate Hilary Clinton ended in the Supreme Court with a decision that was described by some critics as one of the worst since Dred Scot. “Hillary: The Movie,” was produced by Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit, as part of its campaign against the former democratic presidential aspirant, and was released during the Democratic presidential primaries in 2008.
The judgment, which relaxes the restriction on power of the corporations to directly spend on advertising during federal elections, was described by Harvard law Professor Lawrence Lessig as “proverbial fuel on the fire”. He notes that the issue is not whether corporations are silenced or their First Amendment right to free speech upheld. More importantly, the outcome is an assault on democracy, capable of promoting a system that will further erode the public trust in their elected officers. Lessig cautioned that decision would undermine the participation of the citizens in the democratic process and that it gives unfair advantage to corporations, whose financial prowess will give them a stronger voice than the electorate.
Lessig heads Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, which studies the intersection between politics, interest groups and corruption in the U.S. politics. As part of the reading for a course convened by the program, I came across a very interesting article by an expert on political corruption, Zephyr Rain Teachout (found in the Cornell Law Review, Vol. 94, No. 341, 2009, for those who are interested), which I found very relevant to the Court’s decision in Citizens United.
Teachout writes that the Framers of the Constitution were obsessed with corruption and saw it as one of the greatest threats to democracy. They designed the system in such a way that corrupt leaders will not only loose their positions, but also their reputation. The Founding Fathers built mechanisms into the Constitution to safeguard democracy by ensuring transparency, accountability and citizens’ participation in the political process. The independence of the political office holders from other special interests was of paramount importance to the Framers.
Teachout writes that “corruption was discussed more often in the constitutional convention than factions, violence, or instability. It was a topic of concern on almost a quarter of the days that the members convened. Madison recorded the specific term corruption fifty-four times, and the vast majority of the corruption discussions were spearheaded by influential delegates Madison, Moris, Mason, and Wilson. The attendees were concerned about the corrupting influence of wealth, greed, and ambition.” It is not an overstatement to say that the Framers actually saw the Constitution as an instrument to fight corruption.
The Framers defined political corruption to include “self-serving use of public power for private ends, including, without limitation, bribery, public decisions to serve private wealth made because of dependent relationships, public decisions to serve executive power made because of dependent relationships, and use by public officials of their positions of power to become wealthy”.
Their efforts to curb corruption in the political process is visible in issues including the regulation of elections, term limits, limits on holding multiple offices, limitations on accepting foreign gifts, the veto power, the impeachment clause, and provisions for the separation of powers, among other measures, with a view to ensure that leaders represent the interest of their constituency and not personal interests. In the words of Teachout, “taking seriously the architecture [of the Constitution] requires more than passing knowledge of what motivated the choice of architecture. Political corruption is context without which other specific words don’t make sense; it is embodied in the text itself through other words that can’t be understood without understanding corruption”.
History has shown that when leaders put their self-interest above those who elected them, it undermines the trust of the people in the process and inevitably leads to collapse of the democratic system. The Roman and Greek empires are classic examples. The danger of democracies leaving political corruption unchecked is succinctly captured by Teachout: “voters will stop voting, people will stop running for office, and citizens will stop making serious efforts to read news and understand the public issues of their day, because they will believe that such efforts are futile,” she writes.
In McConnell v. FEC, 540 U.S. 93, which the Court overturned in Citizens United, the Court had made the following powerful comments: “Just as troubling to a functioning democracy as classic quid pro quo corruption is the danger that officeholders will decide issues not on the merits or the desires of their constituencies, but according to the wishes of those who have made large financial contributions valued by the office holder. Even if it occurs only occasionally, the potential for such undue influence is manifest. And unlike straight cash-for-votes transactions, such corruption is neither easily detected nor practical to criminalize. The best means to prevention is to identify and remove the temptation.”
Ignoring the threat of corruption to democracy is, therefore, a serious problem that cannot be taken lightly. I agree with Teachout when she writes that “internal decay of our political life due to power-and-wealth seeking by representatives and elites is a major and constant threat to our democracy. History provides some powerful tools to allow us incorporate the anti-corruption principle into the constitutional law of democracy. We should pay attention to it”. The recent decision of the Supreme Court ignores this history, undermining the Constitution’s efforts to curb corruption at the highest level.
The 5-4 conservative majority decision was delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy ’61, and concurred in by Justice Samuel Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts ’79, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia ’60. Justice Sonia Sotomayor began her Supreme Court career with a dissent. She joined four other liberal justices in disagreeing with the majority decision. The dissenting judgment delivered by Justice Stevens severely criticized the majority court for ignoring the dangerous consequence of the decision on democracy:
“At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics,” Justice Stevens wrote.
The decision overruled a decade of precedent laid down in McConnell, a 2003 decision that upheld the part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions, as well as Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652, a 1990 decision that upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates.
In his weekly address on Saturday, President Barack Obama ’91 criticized the decision as “a huge victory to the special interests and their lobbyists”. The President expressed his disappointment with the ruling, saying that he could not “think of anything more devastating to the public interest. The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington, or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections”. He noted that even foreign corporations would now have say in U.S. politics; candidates that disagreed with corporations would come under serious attack from the corporations during election.
Obama went on to observe that “all of us, regardless of party, should be worried that it will be that much harder to get fair, common-sense financial reforms, or close unwarranted tax loopholes that reward corporations from sheltering their income or shipping American jobs offshore”. He also cautioned that the decision makes it “more difficult to pass common-sense laws” to promote energy independence or expand health care.
The danger is clear!
The competition will now be intense among the corporations to producing the highest number of Senators and Representatives. Doesn’t this undermine the role of the public in the American democracy? Can individuals’ contribution to candidates now count in the campaign process? Will this be the last Congress that is truly elected by the people? How much would this decision contributing in promoting institutional corruption? I am sure most politicians will be more concerned about pleasing the corporations than their constituencies. It will be dangerous for any of them to fall out with the corporations.
American democracy has been a model to many countries across the globe. But the recent decision by the Supreme Court legalizing direct corporate participation which over turn a time revered restriction on the corporation is a worrisome development that deserve concern of anyone that is interested in American democracy’s future. Citizens United has introduced a new era in the U.S. politics.
The Constitution’s “We the People” has gradually become “We the Corporations”. Equating corporations with human beings undoubtedly undermines the participation of individual citizens in the political process. Election into political office under the new regime will largely depend on having the highest donation from the corporations. Corporations and their interests, which sometimes include interest of foreign nationals, will now have the strongest voice in the U.S. politics.
It will not be surprising to see Blackwater, Wal-Mart, Exxon and other corporations being better represented in Congress than citizens, whose interest and participation the Constitution seeks to preserve. This is an unwelcome development that anyone concerned about preserving the U.S.’ long-cherished democracy must oppose.
The matter of democratic integrity, transparency and accountability transcends the usual liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republican divide. It is an assault on democracy and negation of the text and original understanding of the Constitution as understood by the Founding Fathers, who strived to craft a document that would preserve democracy by protecting the interest of the electorate over and above other interests.
One might ask if there is anything Congress can do. Even before the decision was announced, an advocacy group called Change Congress was working to pursue the passage of a bipartisan bill called the Fair Elections Now Act. The bill is sponsored by congress men Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA), and Reps. John Larson (D-CT) and Walter Jones (R-NC).
“Under this legislation, congressional candidates who raise a threshold number of small-dollar donations would qualify for a chunk of funding—several hundred thousand dollars for House, millions for many Senate races. If they accept this funding, they can’t raise big-dollar donations. But they can raise contributions up to $100, which would be matched four to one by a central fund. A reduced fee for TV airtime is also an element of this bill. This would create an incentive for politicians to opt into this system and run people-powered campaigns.”
President Obama said that he has instructed his advisers to work with Congress on a forceful, bipartisan response. In a New York Times op-ed, David D. Kirkpatrick wrote that because of the enormous threat of this decision to democracy, some members of Congress are working hard to introduce new laws that will, cure the defect by either
• Imposing a ban political advertising by corporations that hire lobbyists, receive government money, or collect most of their revenue abroad;
• Tightening rules against coordination between campaigns and outside groups so that, for example, they could not hire the same advertising firms or consultants; or
• Requiring shareholder approval of political expenditures, or even forcing chief executives to appear as sponsors of commercials their companies pay for.
What is really necessary need, as Professor Lessig puts it, is an alternative, “Not the alternative that tries to silence any speaker but an alternative that allows us to believe once again that our government is guided by reason or judgment or even just the politics of the people in a district and not by the need to raise money.”