Imagine if you had to pay a bribe to see your newborn baby, get your water supply connected or obtain your driving licence. It’s an everyday fact of life in India - but campaigners are now fighting back, using people power and the internet.
“Uncover the market price of corruption,” proclaims the banner on the homepage of www.ipaidabribe.com. It invites people to share their experiences of bribery, what a bribe was for, where it took place and how much was involved.
Launched in August, the site gives Indians a chance to vent their frustrations anonymously and shine a spotlight on the impact of corruption on everyday life.
“I did the driving test correctly but still the official said I was driving too slow, I realised his intention so gave him 200 Rupees and got the thing done,” is a typical example of a posting.
The website was the brainwave of Ramesh and Swati Ramanathan, founders of a not-for-profit organisation in Bangalore called Janaagraha which literally means “people power”.
“Bribery is routinely expected in interactions with government officials”, Swati Ramanathan told me, “to register your house, to get your driving licence, domestic water connection, even a death certificate.”
Having lived in the US and the UK for several years, they were dismayed on their return to see how widespread corruption had become and decided to do something about it.
“We are all also responsible because we end up paying the darn bribes because otherwise you can never get anything done in India.
“We said, ‘It’s not enough to moralise, we need to find out what exactly is this corruption? What’s the size of it?’“
The website has evolved into a consumer comparison site where people can also get information and advice in different languages on how to avoid paying bribes.
One woman told me how she got round paying a bribe to register her mother’s house.
“I went with all the paperwork and at first they looked through it and said, ‘Oh, I think one of the documents is not up to date.’
“What I had been told at the website is that this is one of the excuses they make to take a bribe, and what we need to do is tell them, ‘OK, give it to me in writing with your stamp and seal, and I will make sure I get these documents the next time so that I can get it registered.’“
“The moment I said that, they backed off and said, ‘No, no, it’s OK, we will pass it through.’“
So far, nearly 10,000 bribe experiences have been reported across 347 cities and 19 government departments.
As the numbers mount, Swati Ramanathan hopes the website will become a powerful tool for shaming government departments into tackling corruption.
“There is so little risk to being corrupt in our country and so high a reward,” she explained.
“The moment you change the equation and you make it riskier, the reward becomes less. You make it riskier by making it public.”
One of the website’s early successes has been with the State Transport Department of Karnataka, which was repeatedly cited in bribe reports - prompting transport commissioner Bhaskar Rao to invite the I Paid A Bribe team to present their findings to his staff.
“I wanted to use that website to cleanse my department,” he said.
“If I try to do things on my own here, I may run into rough weather... But the evidence on this website gives me some internal support to bring about reforms.”
“People in the office are realising that if they take money, it definitely is not something just between the giver and the taker. It is spreading out of this room, and now across the globe, on the web.
“So everybody in the world gets to know that this office is not a good office and institutional pride is hurt.”
The website team helped Bhaskar Rao’s department to identify the procedures most prone to corruption.
Twenty senior officers have been cautioned, and technology is now being introduced to minimise the opportunities for bribe-taking.
For example, driving licences can now be applied for online, making the status of each application transparent to everyone involved.
Driving test bribery was a tougher problem. Bhaskar Rao turned to a local IT company to come up with a solution. The result: the world’s first automated driving test centre opened in Bangalore this year.
Drivers register for the test using a smart card and have to negotiate their way around a paved driving track fitted with electronic sensors. Their progress is recorded electronically.
They also have to complete a screen-based test of their knowledge of the Highway Code. All opportunities for bribe-taking and bribe-giving have thus been removed.
Not surprisingly perhaps, there was some initial opposition from driving inspectors to the introduction of this automated test centre.
But it is now conducting up to 200 tests a day and has become a source of pride. And, they say, there are now a few better drivers on the Indian roads.
Solving the problem of bribery in India is not going to happen overnight. But ipaidabribe.com shows that ordinary people can be turned from the victims of corruption into part of the solution.