I was forced to mull on this question by the runway popularity of a recent post by Fumiko Nagano on the World Bank blog regarding the efforts of 5th Pillar to fight Corruption in India with Zero Rupee Notes. Since then, it has taken the digital world by storm with several hundred twitterattis including @ShashiTharoor and @Gulpanag retweeting its link and several prominent websites including The Economist, CNN, Boing Boing featuring related posts. 5th Pillar is Chennai based, grass roots organisation that has been working against Corruption using RTI and Zero Rupee Notes. It encourages people to use Zero Rupee Notes distributed by them to counter requests for bribe. This is akin to ‘Gandhigiri’ as it tries to shame the Corrupt officials into giving up Corruption instead of using punitive measures. For the uninitiated, the concept of Gandhigiri was introduced by a 2006 Hindi film, Lage Raho Munna Bhai. It consists of confronting the tormentor with moral force, kindness and non-violence in true Gandhian tradition. Since the release of the movie, strikers, protesters and activists have begun to distribute roses or flowers to draw attention to their cause. Even powerful Politicians & Police have sometimes resorted to Gandhigiri in an attempt to educate the public and convey their message.
Like Gandhigiri, the Zero Rupee note idea too is fairly simple and does not require much resources to implement. The idea also finds so many takers because it promises to fix a vexatious problem without too much turmoil. The real question is how effective the solution is? To my mind, there are three chief ingredients that can cause Gandhigiri to succeed:-
1. The foremost factor behind the success of Gandhigiri is the shock value associated with it. Since the tormentor does not anticipate such a response from the victim, he is shocked into compliance by the act of Gandhigiri. This factor is largely responsible for the initial success of Gandhigiri. However as the novelty fades and things fall back to normal, its effectiveness reduces dramatically.
2. The second chief ingredient of Gandhigiri is its viral nature. Nothing succeeds like success. The success of a few individuals can drive others to follow suit. If a million people who have got the Zero Rupee Note, start using it to pay the corrupt, the impact will be huge. The impact will not just be due to the ‘shock value’ but also due to to the collective strength of the effort and the inherent weakness of the corrupt.
3. The third ingredient which is always latent is the threat element. Ironically it is diametrically opposite to what Gandhiji preached. For example in the two recent cases of Gandhigiri – MNS distributing elementary Marathi books to North Indian Taxi Drivers and RJD workers distributing roses to shopkeepers a day prior to ‘Bihar bandh’ requesting them to keeps their shops closed – both had unmistakable elements of threat. Even in the movie, Gandhigiri succeeds largely because it is done by ‘Munna Bhai’ who is a gangster. The lurking element of threat and power is what makes Gandhigiri potent. It is debatable how effective it would be in the hands of the weak and the helpless. None have said this better than Ramdhari Singh Dinkar in his masterpiece ‘Kurushetra’ :-
क्षमा शोभती उस भुजंग को, जिसके पास गरल हो,
उसको क्या, जो दन्तहीन, विषरहित, विनीत, सरल हो
(Forgiveness only adorns a serpent who has venom,
It does not behove the toothless, poison-less and the imbecile.)
To set the record straight, this post is not meant to deride or debunk the idea of a Zero rupee note. It is meant to put things in perspective and set the expectations right. At the very least it is an idea that takes the fight to the doorsteps of the Corrupt officials. It gives even the poorest of the victims a tool to register their protest. Yet it is a desperate tool for desperate people. Anyone who can afford bribe is highly unlikely to use the Zero Rupee Note. Ironically, those who can’t afford bribe are also the most vulnerable in the face of any possible retaliation from the corrupt. This is where the ground operations of 5th Pillar play a crucial role by providing support, succour and advice to the hapless victims. There is also a strong case that can be made of a possible co-operation between the 5th Pillar and the Legal BPO of the kind proposed by @Shaffi Mather to assist the victims of Corruption, if Gandhigiri alone does not work.
The real purpose of this post however, is to emphasise that Corruption is a serious issue just like Health, Education, Infrastructure, Poverty and Population. It requires similar allocation of resources not just from the government but also from all stake holders and well wishers. It requires us to institute academic studies, aggregate knowledge that already exists, monitor and measure progress over time and place, spread awareness, expose, control and eliminate Corruption. Like any other serious problem, it deserves a serious response. Mere symbolism will not be enough.