By Nilima Pathak, Correspondent ,Published: 00:00 March 31, 2012 Gulf News,Image Credit: Courtesy: Ramesh Ramanathan
New Delhi: Bengaluru-based Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. Launched a decade ago, the non-profit organisation focuses on improving urban governance in India and has touched thousands of lives in some way or the other. Unsurprisingly, Ramanathan has had more than 10,000 people volunteering to work with him. Enthused by the response and disgruntled with the massive corruption scandals afflicting the country, he launched a website. Within a year, ipaidabribe.com has become the world’s largest crowd-sourced collection of data on corruption
People report corruption and the ripple effect is seen with government departments changing their work culture and attitudes, so much so that Ramanathan is being referred to as the poster boy for urban reforms. He spoke to Gulf News in an exclusive interview
Gulf News : What led you to initiate the website ipaidabribe.com ?
Have other countries approached you for assistance to start similar practices? When we launched the website, we were looking at it with a social change angle. But soon we realised that it is actually the world’s first site that has taken a unique approach to address corruption. We never thought it would become a role model even for other countries. People from 17 countries, including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have approached us for assistance. And since we have no copyright issue, we are willing to share info with them. In Kenya, they have already set up a similar website, while Philippines and Bhutan are working on theirs.
Do you think corruption is as much an issue in other countries as in India?
While big-ticket wholesale corruption exists in many developed countries across the world, everyday corruption affects Indians in a very fundamental way. We do not get what we deserve as our right from the government and various public-dealing offices. When we don’t get the service we require, we pay a bribe for it, and in the process lose self-respect and also our ability to complain. This motivated us to work towards impacting people’s tolerance for corruption at all levels.
How far has it led to improvement in services in government departments?
In Karnataka’s RTO [Regional Transport Office], from where driving licences are issued, certain procedures have been changed. When we started collecting information (relating to bribes/corruption), the head of the RTO called us and said he was very embarrassed that his department was showing as No 2 for bribery. And now that he had the evidence, he would take action. He promptly issued show-cause notices to 20 officers.
More importantly, we had prepared a report that divulged the fact that out of the 10 tests for a driving licence, two involved the greatest amount of bribery. We suggested that if the procedure was changed and made less discretionary, there would be less need for dishonesty. That’s when certain procedures were modified.
Corruption was also rampant at the sub registrar’s office related to land transactions in the peripheral areas of the city. So, rather then having one sub-registrar office for a particular area, we suggested ‘anywhere registration’. This meant people could choose and approach a more honest officer in case they had a problem. So, now they have created clusters and people can choose from five or six offices in an area. Though it has not eliminated it, it has certainly reduced the rate of corruption.
What’s next on the agenda?
We have asked for and have been allowed by the Karnataka government to put up posters in 30 government offices. This will now enable people to SMS their grievances. Most often, when a person experiences corruption, it is at that particular time that he has the desire to report or register his complaint. People don’t pay a bribe and then go home and log on to a website to lodge a complaint. It will make the system more effective.
But what is the way out for those who do not have access to the internet or are illiterate, to be able to register their complaint?People may not have access to websites, but most have mobile phones. They can SMS to us on 5616151. We hope it will act as a huge deterrent to corruption.Do you have plans of taking up issues at a national level? I do not understand why Indians have this romantic sense of ‘national change’ or a ‘national movement’. We should emphasise and focus on local change. The important issue here is to make a difference to ‘my neighbourhood’. And if people in their respective areas did that, it would automatically bring in change at the national level. We have set up an example in Karnataka.
Now others can take up similar initiatives in their states. We are ready to share our experience with everyone.Is it correct that the central government is exploring the possibility of using the platform to report corrupt practices in the prestigious National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) scheme meant for the poor?
We approached the Ministry of Rural Development and Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Rural Development, reacted very positively. Once the idea is formalised, it will be a good template.Have other countries approached you for assistance to start similar practices? When we launched the website, we were looking at it with a social change angle. But soon we realised that it is actually the world’s first site that has taken a unique approach to address corruption. We never thought it would become a role model even for other countries.
People from 17 countries, including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have approached us for assistance. And since we have no copyright issue, we are willing to share info with them. In Kenya, they have already set up a similar website, while Philippines and Bhutan are working on theirs.
Becoming a fighter of corruption
• Ramesh Ramanathan was born on November 7, 1963 in Rayalacheruvu village in Karnataka to mother Radha and father T.S. Ramanathan.
• Early education at St Germain’s High School, Bengaluru in 1980.
• St Joseph’s College for Pre-University, Bengaluru in 1982.
• Graduated from BITS Pilani, Bengaluru in 1986.
• MBA from Yale University, United States in 1989.
• Certified Financial Analyst from Association of Investment Management and Research in 1991.
• Worked with Citibank in New York and London 1989-1998.
• Left as Managing Director, European Head of Corporate Derivatives a $100 million business, and member of Global Markets Leadership Team, running a total business of $1 billion.
• Returned to India in 1998.
• Co-founded Janaagraha, an NGO, with his wife Swati in 2001.