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‘Jugaad’ culture: The good, the bad and the ugly

Ahead of the release of his first book 'Jugaad Yatra: Exploring The Indian Art Of Problem Solving', former journalist Dean Nelson talks about his fascination with India's love for the quick fix

Dean Nelson says ‘jugaad’ in India exists in many ways, in multiple aspects of life. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Dean Nelson says ‘jugaad’ in India exists in many ways, in multiple aspects of life. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Dean Nelson starts the prologue to his book Jugaad Yatra: Exploring The Indian Art Of Problem Solving with the definition of jugaad—a quick fix, a frugal innovation, a botch job, corruption, etc.—and then dedicates the first part of the prologue to the “space oddity" that Mangalyaan, India’s Mars orbiter mission, was.

“The rocket was not powerful enough to reach Mars. Americans or British people would say, ‘Forget it. We need a more powerful rocket.’ But Indians thought, ‘How can we make this rocket, which is not powerful enough to reach Mars, reach there?’ They launched Mangalyaan the same way David slew Goliath. It was ingenious," says Scotland-based Nelson, who was in Delhi for the book’s release on 13 June.

With the mission’s success, at just above $70 million, or around 473.3 crore now (less than the production budget of Gravity), India became the only country to enter Mars’ orbit in the first attempt.

“It would never have happened in Europe," says Nelson, a former South Asia editor for The Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph.

The 2012 book, Jugaad Innovation: A Frugal And Flexible Approach To Innovation For The 21st Century, co-authored by Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja, also talks about how leading companies are practising jugaad to pioneer growth. But when you talk about running businesses in India, this jugaad mentality hurts. “I became aware that jugaad can often also refer to corruption, bending the rules and beating the system," says Nelson.

Nelson, who lived in India from 2005-15, spoke about jugaad, how it divides people in India, and how harnessing the best forms of jugaad could help the country become a world leader. Edited excerpts:

What was your first encounter with ‘jugaad’?

I encountered it before I knew the word. I saw a TV advertisement in Britain before moving to India. The ad—called The Sculptor—features a man in India who loves the Peugeot 206 but can’t afford it. He has an Ambassador, which he demolishes, and then welds to make it look like the Peugeot. It obviously doesn’t look the same, but he is quite happy with that. He uses what he has and turns it into what he wants.

I heard about the term for the first time before the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010. It was India’s moment to shine, to showcase the new India that was on the way to become a global power.... But, as we headed closer to the date, it all started falling apart. I had interviewed business leaders such as G.P. Hinduja and K.K. Modi and they all said: “It’s like a Punjabi wedding. There will be chaos right till the end but on the day, it will go on perfect."

And K.K. Modi used the word jugaad. That was the first time I heard that word.

Have you ever done ‘jugaad’?

It happened in 2009 when we moved to a house in Delhi’s Nizamuddin West. It was a beautiful house. But the real problem was that one of the rooms had no windows and there was no way to put an air conditioner in that room.

One day, I came across an article in The Hindu about an old journalist, one Mr M.B. Lal. He had invented a home-made, low-cost, ice-based cooling machine, which could run on inverters. It was the ugliest thing possible but it kind of worked, not brilliantly, but still. That was when I became fascinated by the sheer optimism behind the idea of jugaad.

Is ‘jugaad’ an Indian phenomenon or is it prevalent elsewhere too?

In Britain, there are terms like Heath Robinson or shed inventors. All around the world, there are different names for this kind of innovation. But it is different in India. It has been absorbed here as a national trait. In the last couple of years, the Twitter hashtag #JugaadNation has become immensely popular on social media.

There are deep and spiritual roots to jugaad in India which are not there in the West. When Lord Ganesha was beheaded by Lord Shiva, Shiva sent people around to find a head for Ganesha. If they couldn’t find a human head, an animal head would do just fine.

And I have never seen jugaad exist in so many ways, in so many aspects of life, anywhere else as it does in India. People wear it as a badge of honour and take pride in it.

You say in the book that ‘jugaad’ divides many in India...

You have all the examples of good jugaad that helps people. It helped Indian science establish a lead. Mangalyaan is the best of jugaad. And then, on the other hand, you have the worst form of jugaad where people’s lives are being put at risk because some people want to cut corners. So jugaad can be the force to drive India forward and it can also drag the country back. You have to harness the best forms of jugaad and purge the bad forms. The question is, how would Indians use jugaad to the advantage of the country? I asked many industry leaders.

The main takeaway from those conversations is that you need the basic framework, you need good roads, stable electricity, banking for all, and then you can use the jugaad innovation on top of that framework and that can become the winning formula.

Give us some examples of bad ‘jugaad’.

The Commonwealth Games are an example of bad jugaad. Then there was the incident of the stage catching fire during one of the Make in India events in Mumbai a couple of years ago.

But the worst form of jugaad can be seen in the Indian healthcare industry, as shown in one of the episodes of Satyamev Jayate, the show that (actor) Aamir Khan hosted. That episode was sensational, about fake doctors and the problems with healthcare in India.

There have been hearings on Capitol Hill that some Indian generic medicines are not up to the mark. Lots of Indian generics in Africa have turned out to have no active pharmaceutical ingredients. This is a huge problem.

Corruption at the heart of India’s medical system is the worst example of jugaad and the death of Anuradha Saha (in 1998) due to medical negligence is a case in point.

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