2013-05-17

These Two Young Women Are Taking On Bribery In India

With Bribe-Hackers, they hope to change the culture around interacting with government officials through education and exposure.

Bribe-Hackers founders Sreerupa Chowdhury, Namrata (no longer with the organization), and Monalisa Saha

Bribes are a way of life in India, where 54% of residents reported in 2009 that they had paid bribes in the past year. No one is immune. While getting ready for an anti-corruption conference in Brazil, former law student Sreerupa Chowdhury found herself waiting an unnervingly long time for her visa. After the World Bank, a sponsor of the anti-corruption forum, contacted local authorities, her visa was delivered within a day. Presumably the holdup was because officials were waiting for a bribe.

Chowdhury is the co-founder of Bribe-Hackers, a new Calcutta-based organization that just received $20,000 from the World Justice Project’s Roderick B. Mathews Opportunity Fund competition to combat bribery in India. She has long been passionate about bribery in her country, where she says "nothing gets done without a bribe." So Chowdhury and fellow law school graduate Monalisa Saha launched Bribe-Hackers--an online platform for people to both report bribes to the general public and take action against the offending parties.

There is a disconnect between local, corrupt officials and higher-level government officials who often campaign on promises to end bribery. Bribe-Hackers will appeal to those higher-level officials who want to save face. "Our understanding is that the government is keen to improve its own image," says Chowdhury.

Saha and Chowdhury envision the Bribe-Hackers website as a place where people can simply report their stories of bribery--say, an instance of paying an extra fee for a driver’s license--or go a step further and ask the Bribe-Hackers staff to pursue justice. The staff won’t just take the complaint to the authorities; they’ll also offer up details about where it has been taken, how the proceedings are going, and all the possible outcomes. If an official is found guilty, Bribe-Hackers will highlight the case on the website.

The publicity piece is integral to ensuring the safety of complainants, who could be in danger from threatened authorities. "If a person is harassed by the corrupt official, we will highlight that in the media. We’re constantly trying to protect the person by giving a lot of publicity to the case," says Saha. Bribe-Hackers is also thinking about working with the police to create some sort of witness protection-like agreement for bribe reporters.

The Bribe-Hackers founders are still in the beginning stages of organizing their ambitious project. When I spoke to them, they were about to meet with officials from a number of agencies, who are suddenly willing to work with the organization now that it has backing from the World Justice Project. "They somehow seem to trust us more with our idea," observes Saha.

Bribe-Hackers is also in the midst of recruiting a staff, who will work in a rented office once Saha and Chowdhury receive their funds from the Opportunity Fund competition. In the near future, the organization will begin an anti-corruption campaign for relevant government departments. And next month, the pair plans to hold anti-corruption workshops for the public.

The biggest barrier will be convincing the complacent public to report bribes. After all, why not pay a small sum to skip an in-person driving test and get a license from the comfort of home? "We’re going to target schools and educational institutions so kids can be made aware of their rights," explains Chowdhury. "You start being okay with giving bribes from a very early age."

Chowdhury and Sreerupa aren’t just starting an organization: they’re trying to create a cultural shift in India. It will be an immense challenge. "There’s a sense of hopelessness," says Chowdhury. "We plan to make people aware of the remedies that they have."

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