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‘Jugaad’, India’s most overrated idea

The existence of 'jugaad' is evidence that the circumstances of a society are so bad that its smart people are doing what smart people in other civilizations do not have to do

Jugaad, a vehicle built from parts of other vehicles and irrigation pumps, lent its name to the concept. Photo: Getty Images
Jugaad, a vehicle built from parts of other vehicles and irrigation pumps, lent its name to the concept. Photo: Getty Images

How can you not like him? He used to sell an insurance policy to Mumbai’s train commuters who wished to travel ticketless. For a small premium, he insured them from the consequences of being caught by ticket checkers. He is among the delinquent Indians I have only heard of and never met, but I do wish he exists.

This fable is in the class of endearing stories about vernacular, and usually rustic, Indians with almost no resources doing smart things, often by breaking the law. There is an unspoken surprise in the perception of such fables by journalists and academics—that poor Indians can be so smart. Collectively, this smartness is known as jugaad in north India. It includes the insufferable stories of the dabbawalas of Mumbai, who collect and deliver lunch boxes with precision, and an enterprising Sikh man who uses a washing machine to make lassi.

In the past decade, a halo has been bestowed on jugaad by the confluent attention of Indian English-media journalists who usually convert their incomprehension of provincial stories into hefty sociological concepts; foreign correspondents who then “understand" India through such concepts and promote them; academics who then quote the respectable global media to extrapolate more than their understanding allows; and the respectable media who then quote academics to corroborate the sociological concepts that they helped create in the first place. That is how jugaad became “the Indian way of innovation" that management gurus advised the West to emulate. A form of law-breaking and street smartness in the face of poverty and governmental incompetence was elevated into a management principle.

A book that was published when jugaad was at the height of global respect, in 2012, is a good example of how the over-intellectualization of a simple Indian way of life created a bogus philosophy. Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth is actually a meta-jugaad.

Written by Navi Radjou and Simone Ahuja, who are consultants, and Jaideep Prabhu, who is an academic, the work is a jugaad book about jugaad which tries to create something out of nothing. The book begins with a blunder. It quotes Albert Einstein as saying, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction." In reality, it is a quote by the economist E.F. Schumacher. This moment of mediocrity is a portent of what is to follow. After the quote, the book immediately begins to express awe at how one remarkable Indian has found a way to use clay pots to keep water cool, a compliment that may amuse Indians who actually live here. The book then profiles the man whose true achievement is that he has marketed the ancient clay pot as a terracotta “fridge" that didn’t need electricity. The authors call this jugaad, and go on to extol global corporations to think small, like rural Indians. They then start calling Benjamin Franklin’s experiments jugaad, and it is then clear that they are confused about their very premise.

Like many urbane fans of jugaad, the authors wished to abolish from the idea of jugaad all that is illegal and unethical because such gurus cannot be seen as endorsing something that breaks laws and morals. But then jugaad is not merely the smartness of an individual, or even that thing which absolute conformists in suits keep parroting—“thinking out of the box". Because how can India, or any other civilization, have a monopoly over these? Jugaad is “frugal innovation", the authors say, and their central premise is that giant corporations should learn from poor Indians. But then why should we ask giant corporations with giant profits to be frugal about their most useful role in society—innovation? Also, a poor Indian has good reasons to be frugal; why should a giant corporation be so?

Jugaad is often exactly that mangled thing which has lent the idea its name—the illegal, dumb, dangerous vehicle, a poor man’s Transformer, built from the parts of other vehicles, and irrigation pumps. If, over 150 years after the invention of the internal combustion engine, modern Indians are using this as a form of public transport, then there is nothing to rejoice in the fact, or for more advanced societies to learn from. Jugaad, the vehicle, is a consequence of many problems, chiefly India’s failure to provide safe and affordable public travel to millions of villagers. And jugaad, as a method of innovation, is evidence of similar problems. The awe of some Western academics for this inferior form of innovation is similar to the awe of very happy Scandinavians who overrate Bhutan’s Third World contentment.

Also, the whole point of jugaad is that it is no big deal. Any culture can assemble scrap and make a bad car. Any culture can put a door on a clay pot and call it a fridge. The existence of jugaad is merely the evidence that the circumstances of a society are so bad that its smart people are doing what smart people in other civilizations do not have to do.

There is an argument that such humble innovations can solve problems no one else but the poor want to solve. But then India holds enduring proof that giant capitalistic market forces that throw up accidental solutions are more beneficial to the poor than jugaad, or humble altruistic research. For instance, Media Lab Asia, the pious short-lived collaboration between MIT Media Lab and the Indian government, worked on a range of technology to improve the lives of the poor. For nearly 10 years, I followed the work of researchers on the cheap computer, cheap phone and also on proto-Artificial Intelligence that will translate languages.

In the end, the problems were solved by BlackBerry, Apple and Google, giant corporations that thought big and believed in having extravagant budgets for innovation.

That is why the real jugaad is not Jugaad; it is Tesla.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets @manujosephsan

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