India's techies hit back against backhanders

Battle against bribery goes online supported by outsourcing staff…

...a civil servant in charge of allotting cooking gas connections have been known to shake down citizens for bribes.

Taking on the crooked policeman on the street is fighting corruption at the individual level but that was not what Thejesh wanted to do, he says. At IPaidABribe.com, where he volunteers, the goal is to expose the widespread prevalence and scale of corruption so government departments and officials can be held accountable.

Janaagraha's initiatives have been backed by a $3m grant from the philanthropic investment firm Omidyar Foundation, started by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Thejesh says initiatives such as IPaidABribe.com are helping create an open-data model where officials can be questioned on why they are taking a bribe and not delivering services. "It is about bringing about a systematic change," says Thejesh, who is in the process of quitting Infosys to launch a start-up while he continues as a volunteer for the not-for-profit organisation.

In India's outsourcing industry, which is in the midst of a sizzling growth cycle, few take a career break and do what Thejesh has done. Yet, when he blogged about his non-profit experience on the company's intranet, Thejesh got a dozen emails from colleagues enquiring about how they could do the same.

Bangalore's march against corruption

In Bangalore, India's high-tech capital and a city of about nine million residents, the changes are slow but encouraging. By the end of March, many outsourcing industry workers had joined in a multi-city citizens' march against corruption, modelled after Mahatma Gandhi's historic Dandi March during India's struggle for independence.

"Nobody listens when you write emails but whether in Bangalore or Tunisia, change happens when you get out and protest on the street," says Rajashekar Maram, 26, a software engineer at Tesco's outsourcing unit in Bangalore. Maram said he and other techies coordinated the march in several Indian cities including Hyderabad and Mumbai. In early April, the group is organising a day-long India-wide fast against corruption.

"In India's season of scams, tech workers are agitated and unsure what to do," says TR Raghunandan, a former civil services officer who retired last year to head IPaidABribe.com.

Many are finally engaging with what is happening around them, says Raghunandan. "If channelled properly, India's tech workers can be a huge, influential power group that can bring about a change," he says.