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Q&A with Founder of ‘I Paid a Bribe,’ India’s Anti-Corruption Online Movement

September 21, 2011

India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with an average GDP growth of about 9 percent over the past several years. Yet corruption remains a pressing problem in the nation of 1.2 billion – Transparency International ranked India 87th out of 178 countries on perceptions of transparency and integrity last year – and a serious drag on the economy and society at large. Meanwhile, the Jan Lokpal Bill, an anti-corruption proposal which has received significant public support and media attention in recent months, reveals a society that is increasingly frustrated over the corruption they see their government representatives engaged in. Ordinary citizens are increasingly raising their voice through innovative social media outlets like ipaidabribe.com, a website that allows citizens to report bribes they were forced to pay. The public response has been overwhelming, with over 14,300 reports across 453 cities and 21 governmental departments recorded since it started in 2010. The Asia Foundation’s Economic Reform and Development program fellow, Katherine Loh, spoke with T.R. Raghunandan, the founder behind the initiative, to discuss its role in curbing corruption in India.

Why is tackling corruption such an important issue in India?

Corruption has a huge economic cost in India. First, where there is corruption, it makes legitimate transactions difficult. Second, it perpetuates mis-governance by destroying any incentive for the government to reduce red tape. As long as systems are slow and convoluted, government officials and politicians can demand bribes to make life easier. Third, it creates a system where distrust pervades our everyday life; where we are suspicious of our government and it is suspicious of us in turn. Fourth, the widespread manifestation of “petty” corruption breaks the spirit of ordinary people, who lose the stomach to fight and get used to enduring bad services and paying bribes to procure them. And, the fact that corruption creates wealth for a few through unjustified means also erodes our values and damages our lives in many ways.

What inspired you to start ipaidabribe.com?

The idea of ipaidabribe.com emerged three years ago and has evolved over time. It started with a discussion between the co-founders of Janaagraha, Ramesh, and Swati Ramanathan and a board member, Sridar Iyengar, as a simple means of tracking the market price of corruption. This was more humorous than anything else. In fact, two years back, a small experimental website was put up to test the concept. Then over time, we worked on the idea extensively and added a lot more features, mainly to channel people’s views and provide advisory services to them such as FAQs. We launched the new website in August 2010.

How has rising internet penetration in India enabled IPAB to function as a platform for improving governance?

In India, we are witnessing a phenomenon by which the internet has become a rallying point for mass movements against corruption. Ipaidabribe.com has been at the forefront of this phenomenon, because we provide space for citizens to report their stories and experiences with corruption. However, we do recognize that we can only reach people who have access to the internet – still the minority in India. However, this number is likely to grow rapidly and therefore, our influence is likely to spread even more. We are also working on developing a mobile interface through which people can report their stories, including in local languages. However, the internet can only facilitate a demand-driven movement for better governance. Content is very important and that is what we believe is a challenge; to separate the wheat from the chaff on the internet, so to speak, and make specific recommendations to improve governance by reducing red tape and increasing transparency.

What are your thoughts on the debate around the hotly debated Lokpal Bill?

The Lokpal Bill proposes to establish a potentially powerful anti-corruption institution, but its scope is limited to acts of corruption committed by public servants. To me, while the Lokpal Bill will be a significant and important step forward, unless we broaden the definition of what constitutes “corruption” under Indian law, many corrupt practices will still slip under the radar. Concentrating on cleansing the public sector alone without controlling the corruption rampant in the private sector will have a limited effect because the private sector will continue to contaminate the private sector. Another weakness in India is that we do not have an asset recovery law; therefore earnings of the corrupt are not compulsorily forfeited to the government.

India needs to align itself with an internationally accepted, stricter standard of defining corruption. In international practice, corruption amounts to much more than bribery of public servants. The UN Convention Against Corruption (2005) recognizes 12 circumstances that amount to acts of corruption. Some of those, such as bribery in the private sector, bribing a foreign national in another country, and concealment of wealth, to name a few, are not considered crimes in India. Now that India has ratified the convention, we will need to strengthen several laws, such as the Benami Act and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, to better detect, prevent, and punish corruption.

As of Sept. 14, 2011, IPAB showed that Rs. 491,043,426 (US $10.3 million) in bribes has been paid. So, what is the market price for corruption?

The original idea was that the website could become a simple means of tracking the market price of corruption – a kind of market mandi ( Hindi word for business or market) price prediction mechanism. However, the afterthought was that such an effort could be much more powerful. The website has moved beyond only giving the market price for corruption to undertaking detailed analysis of process workflows, identifying corruption prone processes, and suggesting reforms that eliminate these.

IPAB informs visitors that their reports “will, perhaps for the first time, provide a snapshot of bribes occurring across your city.” What are the most common institutions people pay bribes to?  Have you seen any changes at all in these institutions (or at least an expressed willingness to correct the problem), or better yet, any impact on governance as a result of the data you’ve captured?

Most bribes are paid to the police department. However, these are minor, petty bribes rarely exceeding Rs. 1,000. In the Department of Stamps and Registration however, larger sums of money are paid in bribes, making it one of the most corrupt departments.

IPAB believes in systemic change and hence our solutions lie more on taking the processes online and terminating human interface and thereby reducing corruption. We also believe in educating citizens on government processes and services and think that government websites can be a vital source of such information – provided it is informative, detailed, and user-friendly.

We are willing to work hand in hand with the government in order to design systems, write new regulations, and help design similar reforms. Since the government has many good people working within it, reactions to our work have been positive. For example, through our findings on the Transport Department of Bangalore and subsequent engagement with then Transport Commissioner, Mr. Bhaskar Rao, we have helped the department revamp its citizen charters as well as redesign its website to make it more user-friendly. We have continued our engagement with officers to reduce corruption in the department.

More recently, this June we were invited by the Chief Secretary of Karnataka to make a presentation before the officials from the Transport Department, Department of Stamps and Registration and Electricity Supply. The presentation focused on corruption in these departments and possible recommendations to reducing such corruption. This was a real highlight for all of us at IPAB.

Based on many of the reports posted on ipaidabribe.com, it seems that the culture of bribery is perpetuated by a public that often believes that it cannot get anything done without paying. How does one go about breaking this cycle?
It’s true. Corruption has become even a behavioural issue to a great extent. People have become habituated towards paying bribes and accept it to be part and parcel of society. The need for change must come from within each individual and only then can we expect the menace of corruption to reduce. That can happen through a variety of ways. Deterrents such as improved vigilance and stringent punishments can increase the perception of risk and people will desist from corruption. But that is not a complete solution. Simplifying processes does away with bottlenecks and therefore reduces the number of corruption prone processes. Finally, it’s like littering; when a critical mass of people is found to be not corrupt, then the others conform to that behaviour.

You also have a feature called “I didn’t pay a bribe,” where people can tell their stories of refusing to pay bribes. How has this worked so far?

Corruption in our country also persists because of citizens’ lack of education and awareness of government processes and services. Hence, we have a FAQ section which provides answers on how to procure various government services. We also have the 10 commandments on how to resist paying bribes. These are simple yet effective methods which have been compiled from citizen responses on the website. In this way, we embolden the people to stand up to corrupt officials.

How does this technology-driven approach to combating corruption fill a void where traditional methods of fighting corruption have been less successful?

Although technology penetration in India is limited, it has managed to create a great impact, especially with the middle class and the youth. As mentioned earlier, India is witnessing a phenomenon by which the net has become a rallying point for mass movements against corruption. This opportunity needs to be leveraged in order to get the best out of the situation. The urban Indian, often said to be the “cynical Indian,” is in most cases tech savvy. A technology-driven approach can tap into this population. Social media like Facebook and Twitter have brought the people of the world a lot closer. However, the real impact will be seen when we move into using mobile phones to tackle corruption.

When you launched last August, did you get push back from anyone who might benefit from such bribes?  

No. We received a very good response not only from the public, but the government as well.

Similar initiatives are popping up in China and other countries inspired by your site. What advice would you give to others who would like to emulate your idea in other countries?

We feel proud that we are considered a role model in China. We believe that the basic idea behind our website, of getting people involved in a citizens’ effort to reduce corruption, can be used elsewhere too. For that, we have prepared a collaboration policy that we offer to interested groups in other countries. So far, citizens and NGOs from 12 countries have approached us for assistance and we are in discussions with them. The key to success is to provide a basket of services to both the people and the government, and to constantly evolve new strategies to use communication services optimally for creating a swarm-like resistance to corruption. We also believe that not only is it important to provide a space to citizens, but we must also educate them on the techniques of resisting corruption. It is also important to work with the government, because there will always be good people within the government who are willing to tackle corruption effectively by getting rid of red tape and simplifying procedures.

Right now, the site is primarily for urban corruption. Are there plans to make this platform available to the rural sector (or those who may not have easy access to computers or the internet) via mobile technology?

It’s true that rural residents in India for the most part don’t have access to the internet. While IPAB may have made its mark online, we are acutely aware that we are accessible only to 6 percent of the Indian population. Our next step is to take our services to larger numbers of people through mobile devices.

You also founded Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, a non-profit organization that works toward improving the urban quality of life by increasing citizen participation in government. How has this project been going?

Janaagraha has several different programs, ranging from increasing voter turnout in local, state, and urban elections and empowering citizens, to creating safer neighborhoods and holding local governments and elected representatives accountable for providing public goods and services. The most significant success for Janaagraha has been the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). Janaagraha lobbied for an ambitious urban initiative at the national level, and played a key role in the design of the mission. JNNURM is the largest urban initiative in India’s history with a huge funding program for 65 cities. Two of the reforms in JNNURM namely Citizen Participation Law and Public Disclosure Law have been crafted by Janaagraha.

Read more about Janaagraha’s programs.

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