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Citizens Use Technology to Fight Corruption in India

Author: Dana Liebelson
Published Date: 21 December 2010

This article was originally published on Diplomatic Courier and was written by Dana Liebelson.

Recently, Yuvaraj Manoharan attempted to register a flat-screen TV company in India. He was asked by officials at the local sales tax office to attach an additional 9,300 rupees (about $200) with his application—and split the bribe into four envelopes. He did not comply. Instead, he
attached “Zero Rupee” notes, obtained from the anti-corruption website 5thPillar. The bemused officials processed his application the next day.

In India, technology is empowering ordinary citizens and revolutionizing how corruption is found, tracked and eradicated. The term Gandhigiri, coined from a Bollywood film, can be used to describe this modern revival of passive resistance in India. When it comes to finding innovative ways to monitor unscrupulous officials, U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Singh have a lot to learn from India’s civil society.

A website launched in August called “I Paid a Bribe” (IPaB) uses crowdsourcing technology to provide a window into corruption across the country. The site allows users to anonymously distinguish whether they paid, accepted or declined a bribe. They can also submit details such as the bribe’s location and value. The site receives 25-50 reports a day and has logged over 120,000 hits since its launch.

“Every citizen who reports a story on our website about paying a bribe is angry enough to begin to resist it,” said the site’s founder, T. Raghunandan. He has 26 years of experience as a high-ranking civil servant in the Indian administrative service.

Crowdsourcing sites both supplement and surpass the government’s monitoring capabilities. The median age of Indians is about 25, and this group is trending towards online communication. In fighting corruption, these sites give users anonymity—a key factor that often inhibits citizens from reporting incidents.

Another way civil society groups are using technology to promote accountability is through mobile phones. The country has over 700 million cell phone users. Recently, the Association for Democratic Reform (ADR) developed a text-messaging service that allows citizens to type in their zip code, and obtain background information on candidates running for office. A decade ago, citizens had little way to access a candidate’s criminal record or financial assets and liabilities. Now, users need only to text the code-word MYNETA to get regular updates on their local candidates.

Some say that these kinds of groups are doing a better job than the government when it comes to battling corruption. Ashwin Dasa, a citizen from Mangalore [a port city on the Arabian Sea] wrote from IpaB’s Facebook page: “The officials who take action against corruption are corrupt too. We can’t expect much from the government.”

India has staggering rates of corruption, according to an index published by the civil society organization, Transparency International. The index measures the perceived level of political corruption in 178 countries. This year, India slid three spots to 87th place—lagging behind non-democratic countries like Saudi Arabia and Cuba.

According to Trace International, an anti-corruption organization, over 90 percent of bribes in India originate from government officials. Presently, Singh’s administration is reeling from allegations of a $39 billion dollar scandal over proper sale of cell phone licenses. The cost of the scandal could potentially be equivalent to India’s annual defense budget.

One of India’s major anti-corruption measures is the 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act, which gives citizens the right to obtain documents and records from the government. Citizens can also appeal to the “vigilance wing” of any department, which is intended to investigate malpractice and fraud among officials.

But groups like 5th Pillar say citizens don’t always understand how to use the RTI Act effectively. Even when citizens do use the Act, they often are disillusioned by its exclusions and lengthy processing times.

Ashwin Dasa, a citizen from Bangaluru, India’s third most populated city] wrote: “I believe that if you are going to you use the RTI, you will get into trouble for it. I stay away.”

The group has tried to amend these issues by filing RTI petitions on long-pending applications, and bringing about public interest litigations if they feel a request is being neglected. The organization also conducts free training sessions on how to use the law.

“We act as a bridge between skeptical citizens and the government anti-corruption agencies,” said Shobila Kali, a 5th Pillar member. “Citizens haven’t expected the government to act for the last three to four decades.”

Recently however, there is evidence that the government has reinvigorated its anti-corruption efforts. India is preparing to ratify the UN Convention Against Corruption, seven years after it came into being. The Convention implements a wide range of anti-corruption measures, including a law that will deal with bribery in the private sector.

Last month, India also announced a new partnership with the United States to promote technology and innovation on behalf of democratic accountability. In anticipation of the partnership, President Obama attended the Expo on Democracy and Open Government in Mumbai, where he met with both the Association for Democratic Reform and IpaB. His administration has since pledged $1 million to support civil society in India. Singh’s administration has made a matching commitment of in-kind assistance.

Some believe that this combination of government and citizen support and technological innovation, is the key to ending corruption in India.

“By constantly evolving new strategies and communication services, we can create a swarm-like resistance to corruption!” Raghunandan said.