Book excerpt: Jugaad Yatra – Exploring the Indian Art of Problem Solving by Dean Nelson
Throughout 2015 and 2016, the Twitter hashtag, #JugaadNation became a social media sensation with popular websites like BuzzFeed showcasing the ‘hilariously creative ways Indians get shit done no matter what’. There was a bicycle where a missing handlebar was replaced with a car steering wheel, a broken shower head replaced with a taped plastic water bottle pricked with dozens of holes at the bottom. Household irons were shown being used to straighten women’s curls or upturned as hotplates to boil milk. Air conditioner units with missing grills became chillers for beer while a desert cooler was adapted to cool two neighbouring rooms by attaching a pair of old trousers to divide the flow, one leg for each. There were pressure cookers propped up by two bottles and heated by burning candles taped together, a shattered clock missing numbers 1 to 7 made good with the digits scrawled onto the wall on which it hung, and endless varieties of crop-sprayers and ploughs made from bicycle wheels, discarded oil barrels and bits of old scrap metal.
There were stories too, along with pictures. In November 2016, when Narendra Modi scrapped ₹ 1,000 and ₹ 500 banknotes to target black money and corruption, India’s ATM machines were suddenly under siege and customers were forced to queue for many hours to get cash. Satjeet Singh Bedi had a jugaad solution to hand—he set up BookMyChotu.com to supply labourers to stand in line on behalf of the well-to-do who could hire a chotu—which literally means ‘little one’—for ₹ 90 per hour to take the pain out of Modi’s demonetization.
These pictures and tales went viral on a global wave of LOLs and OMGs, shared by Indians as a celebration of their inspiring resourcefulness and optimism amid scarcity and poverty. It reflected the extent to which jugaad had been claimed as a treasured ‘we are like that, only’ Indian trait.
In his book, India’s Century: The Age of Entrepreneurship in the World’s Biggest Democracy, veteran Congress leader and former cabinet minister Kamal Nath described how jugaad creativity had blossomed in the hardship of India’s early post-independence years. The shortage economy—when Jawaharlal Nehru’s government curbed imports and restricted foreign investment in favour of domestic production—demanded frugality and turned ‘every Indian’ into a ‘master of jugaad’.
The word describes ‘as nothing else does the ability to creatively “manage”, to make do with quick fix solutions. Jugaad developed into a survival skill for most Indians. It was the additional resource that gave greater returns within a framework of scarcity. Every obstacle thus became an opportunity, a showcase for ingenuity… I sometimes wonder whether jugaad, a form of scientific innovation, represents a suppressed Indian inventive gene,’ he wrote.
In recent years, the idea of jugaad itself has been repackaged as an Indian export, a business philosophy with answers for lumbering Western companies desperate to transform their fortunes in a time of austerity. If only they could embrace India’s flexibility and frugal innovation they too could strip out costs and achieve ‘breakthrough growth’, its proponents claim.
There is no shortage of studies to support their case. Tata, India’s revered BPO-to-steel conglomerate, created the Nano, the world’s cheapest car, by making its record low price— ₹ 1 lakh—the starting point of its design. The same frugal approach developed a stripped-down ₹ 1,200 water purifier. Well-known cardiac surgeon Dr Devi Shetty has cut the cost of coronary bypass operations to less than ₹ 1.3 lakh at his no-frills Narayana Health ‘factory’ hospitals—one-sixth of the cost in Britain and an even tinier fraction of the bill at the United States’ celebrated Cleveland Clinic. His surgeons conduct up to thirty-five operations a day compared to the two an American counterpart might do. He believes he will soon be able to do them for around ₹ 50,000 while poor patients are treated free of charge. The inventors of the Aakash used only the most basic components and rethought what was truly necessary to produce the world’s cheapest tablet computer for a little more than ₹ 2,000, an iPad for the poor.
Jugaad innovation isn’t reserved for inventions, it is about processes too, a way of thinking. Indians have, for example, pioneered the language of the ‘missed call’—a basic code based on the number of rings—as a free communication system. One ring might mean I’m on my way, two please call me back, three might be something serious. No one picks up, and no one’s credit balance is debited.
The examples are endless and for its supporters they are evidence of a ‘Jugaad Nation’ on the move and an inspiration for the world to fall in line. Some parts of the world have taken the advice to heart. A British government-funded report by the innovation think tank, Nesta, suggested that jugaad could be ‘a route to innovation success in the UK’ and ‘a strategic focus for collaboration’ between India and the United Kingdom. ‘A culture of “jugaad”, or creative improvisation, means the unusual skill set and mindset required for frugal innovation are abundant,’ the report argued and quoted its leading gurus’ definition: ‘First, it is frugal: it enables innovators to get more with less. Second, it is flexible: it enables innovators to keep experimenting and rapidly change course when needed. Third, it is democratic: it can therefore tap into the wisdom of otherwise marginalized customers and employees.’
But while jugaad may be ‘practised by almost all Indians in their daily lives to make the most of what they have’, its critics are equally convinced that it’s a daunting obstacle in the path of India’s social and economic development. For them jugaad is a byword for cute but shoddy products, ad hoc decision-making, poor compliance, weak systems, organizational chaos and disregard for standards or excellence. For those who want to see India competing with and leading the world, jugaad is one of the reasons why it often falls short. They see India’s love of the quick fix in the weakness of its research and development and failure to build respected, enduring systems. The jugaad trike might be a quirky icon of frugal ingenuity but it is also a symbol of backwardness, poor governance and a mark of India’s failure to move beyond ‘make do and mend’ to pioneering technology.
ABOUT THE BOOK
India’s Mangalyaan mission to Mars and the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car, are two of the country’s most celebrated achievements in recent times. They have something in common with the inverter which keeps the lights on during power cuts, the desert cooler which eases the searing summer heat, and the hybrid trikes, half-Enfield Bullet motorbike, half-bullock cart, which slow traffic throughout northern India. They share traits with inspiring village inventions which offer cheap stoves, cool water, wind-powered pumps, safer wells, and even sanitary towels to those who can least afford them. And they also share characteristics with some of the worst aspects of life in urban India—unsafe vehicles, dangerous buildings, poor sanitation and shoddy standards of work and manufacturing. They are all examples of good and bad jugaad, the colloquial Hindi word for a frugal innovation, a quick fix, improvised solution with cheap materials readily to hand, and ‘out of the box’ solutions which bypass received wisdom, rules and regulations.
The concept of jugaad divides many in India. Should the country embrace jugaad as the elixir of innovation or shun it as the celebration of the substandard? This book explores the special place jugaad has in Indian thinking and India.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
DEAN NELSON is an award-winning investigative journalist and foreign correspondent. He spent ten years in Delhi covering India and the South Asia region from Afghanistan to Myanmar and beyond, first for the Sunday Times and later for the Daily Telegraph. He lives in Edinburgh with his wife and three children and continues to travel in Asia on assignment.