In India, anti-corruption all the rage

Updated on
The World

BANGALORE, India — A man in Pune, in western India, hates himself for forking over $3 to the policeman who accused him of bad parking.

In Bangalore, a young man gripes about how he repeatedly "failed" his driver's license test until he bribed the official.

A Mumbai resident complains that authorities demanded money to transfer over her dead father’s property, even though she was his undisputed heir.

A traveler in New Delhi admits, sheepishly, to coughing up $30 at the airport lest the customs officials "microcheck" his bags.

The list goes on.

Indians have had it up to here with paying bribes, and now they're speaking out. As anti-corruption campaigns gain momentum nationwide, a new website,, has emerged as a place where hundreds of Indians swap stories about paying bribes, discuss the going rates and get advice on how to deal with corrupt officials.

Launched in August by the nonprofit Janaagraha, which works out of Bangalore to improve the quality of life in Indian cities and towns, IPaidABribe resonates with Indians who deal with a seemingly unending avalanche of scandals.

There were the Commonwealth Games, which left behind a legacy of corruption on every level, from the purchase of treadmills to toilet paper. Hardly had that scandal died down, when another cropped up, this time over the illegal construction of a swank high-rise on prime Mumbai real estate. Next, the prime minister himself was implicated in a telecom scam that involved fraud to the tune of $4 billion.

And that's just the last few months.

Each of these scandals has claimed the job of an Indian official and the Supreme Court is currently questioning Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over the telecom scam.

But average Indians are fed up. They want more to be done.

“Take corruption out of the morning papers and we will have nothing to read,” said Bijoy Venugopal on the IPaidABribe. “Take it out of prime-time television and our anchors will have nothing to scream about, take it out of our sports and we will have nothing to play for, take it out of politics and we will have anarchy.”

IPaidABribe is more than just a forum for people to vent frustration. The site seeks to challenge systemic corruption by extensively documenting it and analyzing patterns. The nature and number of corrupt acts, as well as their location and frequency, provide  Janaagraha with city snapshots. It then uses the snapshots to argue for improved governance in specific locales and targeted law enforcement.

Janaagraha co-founder Swati Ramanathan says that the website’s approach may be cheeky but the intent is dead serious. “We have taken a fresh approach and set up this ‘mandi’ [marketplace], so we can uncover the market price of corruption.”

The initiative has been backed by a $3 million grant from the social investment firm Omidyar Foundation, started by eBay-founder Pierre Omidyar.

The site states that it aims to "take the lid off corruption," though its intent is not to target or hunt down corrupt individuals.

Still, the website has given pause to officials India-wide. In Bangalore last month, a residents’ collective in the Whitefield suburbs was successful in challenging the local government office to hand them property documents without the usual bribes. Triumphant residents declared that theirs a "historic victory.”

Local governments elsewhere have asked IPaidaBribe for pattern analyses so they can bring about systemic reforms.

Other Indians gleefully say that the mere threat of being recorded on IPaidaBribe is making bribe-taking officials shiver. “Until now, bribe-taking was very low-risk but now official’s social capital is at risk,” said Ramanathan.

In India, other anti-corruption campaigns are spreading. In Chennai, a nonprofit called 5th Pillar has printed and distributed thousands of "zero-rupee" bills that are being gifted to bribe-taking officials. “Such initiatives are just a start and if we keep at this, it will take 10 years to rid India of corruption,” said Bhanu Kumar, executive director of 5th Pillar.

In Ahmedabad, students at the Indian Institute of Management are setting up a toll-free “Corruption Ambulance,” a help line for citizens to issue complaints against corruption. The complaints will then be investigated by a special anti-corruption cell.

IPaidABribe is inspiring nonprofits overseas too. Foundations from South Africa and the United States have approached Janaagraha to launch similar initiatives. In the United States, the Sunlight Foundation, which works in digitizing government documents in various states, said it wants to heighten awareness about the subtle forms of corruption rampant in the United States.

Corruption has become a very large-scale operation in India involving people at the highest levels, said Samuel Paul, chairman of the Bangalore-based transparency nonprofit Public Affairs Center. “Reform is not enough, we need transformation.”

Despite the newfound public passion, campaigners say India cannot rid itself of corruption overnight.

The message has yet to trickle down to India’s villages. “We have to rid the rural India of the sense that nothing will happen without greasing a palm,” Bhanu Kumar of 5th Pillar said.