Zero rupee note that Indians can slip to corrupt officials who demand bribes

An Indian U of Maryland physics prof came up with these zero rupee notes that Indians can slip to officials who demand bribes. They've been wildly successful, with a total run over over 1,000,000 notes, and the reports from the field suggest that they shock grafters into honesty. Fifth Pillar is the NGO that produces the notes, and they're available for download in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.
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.

Paying Zero for Public Services

Fifth Pillar)

(via Kottke)


  1. Perhaps we can create fake cameras (no film, no digital card). People can “take” pictures of police, buildings and other “no-no” topics. But they aren’t actually taking a picture.

  2. “Perhaps we can create fake cameras (no film, no digital card). People can “take” pictures of police, buildings and other “no-no” topics. But they aren’t actually taking a picture.”

    That probably wouldn’t go over so well given terrorism fears.

  3. America’s problem isn’t so much bribable officials as overbearing ones and countless monopolistic ones heaping on fictional “Service” charges.

    However, there are “Zoning Hitlers” who demand bribes of US$1000 to build doghouses, etc. that might get freaked by it.

  4. the article does not mention all those who were either beaten or killed for trying to pay bribes with this zero rupee note.

    1. the article does not mention all those who were either beaten or killed for trying to pay bribes with this zero rupee note.

      Links? Examples? Just making shit up?

  5. Why not phish for more?

    Congratulations! This document entitles you a bribe of $5’000’000 (FIVE MILLION US DOLLAR). Please provide your full name, phone and contact address to Mr. Nicholas Igeria at the Very Trustful Bank Inc. (

  6. Is this tactic effective because a culture of corruption expects honest officials to be on the take? I don’t see this as being effective with truly corrupt officials who just want your money. I am not sure if this is just being cynical. I don’t have any experience with corruption.

  7. I know that they sort of explain why these zero rupee notes would shock corrupt officials, but it seems sort of farfetched to me… the examples they list bring to mind a vampire hissing and recoiling in fear from a brandished cross.

  8. In Afghanistan, a friend says, a strong arm family moved onto a farmer’s land and built a building there, the farmer took the strong arm family to court and won with an honest judge, the strong arm family had to tear down the building … and then they came in the night and hacked the farmer’s son into pieces … and now the court refuses to arrest or prosecute the strong arm family, saying the crime was unrelated to the court case. Just sayin, there are low levels, and there are high levels of corruption, and then there are high crimes and misdemeanors, even treason, in plain view.

  9. Though symbolic, at least the Zero Rupee Note takes the fight to the door steps of the Corrupt Officials. Like any other idea, its success will depend upon how many people take to it. However beyond this, we need to be prepared to tackle Corruption as a problem just like health, education & poverty. Read my complete take on the ‘Zero Rupee Note’ way of fighting Corruption in India – . Please leave your comments and suggestions.

    Sanjay Uvach
    Corruption in India

  10. This is a good ideal. I think I’ll support the Republican Party (and other politicans) with my $0 check. And tell them that they may get more if they actually represent me… I wonder if the $0 check is tax deductable.

  11. #14, the answer to your question is “yes”. It works because you have a system where large numbers of basically honest people work in a government system where bribery has become commonplace and it reminds them of who they are and what they should be doing. Very few “corrupt” officials actually see themselves as corrupt, they see themselves as honest, hardworking people working in jobs where “gratuities” are part of the job.

    There is a whole field of psychology devoted to how people convince themselves to do bad things by rationalizing them as good, but the easy lesson to get is that, unless they are crazy, people usually think of themselves as good people who make the right choices. Heck, if you actually thought of yourself as a bad person who did evil things, it would probably drive you crazy.

  12. “…reports from the field suggest that they shock grafters into honesty.”

    Really? If you’re bribing an official, aren’t you doing so to gain access or avoid hassle? Why wouldn’t they just crumble these up, arrest you FOR bribing with counterfeit bills, and/or make life worse for you?
    And #5, I think #4 was speaking rhetorically.

  13. I think the point of these zero rupee notes are as follows:

    1. Bribery is a serious crime in India, if someone rats you out. At the very least, you could lose your gravy train job.

    2. Anyone who bothers to use a zero rupee note to bribe you is pissed off that you’re asking for a bribe. The kind of pissed that may result in them tattling on you to the authorities.

    3. The actual shock value and reminder of ideals of good governance.

    This last point is probably the least important, but when someone gets these notes, they are doing the total mental calculation: How much trouble to help this person vs how much trouble this person could get me in. In most cases it’sprobably an easy decision to help them, and pretend the whole thing never happened (while still demanding a bribe of the next person to come along).

  14. A number of commenters have said things to the effect “I don’t think that this should have worked, based on my understanding of how culture works.” (With some adding something like “Stupid people.” thereafter). Maybe a more fruitful way to respond would be “In my understanding of culture, this wouldn’t have worked so well. What a great opportunity to see how another, very different culture works, and learn something new!” There’s a lot of interesting cultures out there, and windows into them really are great opportunities.

  15. “That probably wouldn’t go over so well given terrorism fears.”

    OBVIOUSLY that’s the point.

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