City City Bang Bang, Columns

In defence of Jugaad

Any public mishap in India goes through a predictable sequence of narratives. We begin by lashing out loudly and bitterly at the most obvious culprits which in 9 cases out of 10 turn out to be politicians, with the remaining position being split between the police, film stars who shoot their mouth off and drivers of BMWs. In the next stage, wherever possible we externalise the problem, and start blaming someone else. Again, most problems in India are seen to have their origin in Pakistan and of late, Australia. We then turn the question inwards and ask, eyes brimming with self-recrimination, if we are all to blame and mount an impressive campaign of self-loathing. By this time usually something else goes wrong and the cycle begins all over again.

So it has been with the CWG. By now we are the third stage and the chief villain of the piece is jugaad, that much heralded trait of Indians that is able to find compromise solutions that sort of work. The ‘chalta hai’ attitude that we see so often in all walks of our life has come back to haunt us in this case, the feeling goes and every statement issued by virtually every official or minister connected with the games reeks of this slovenly acceptance of mediocrity. It is time, we thunder to ourselves as we pace the floor magisterially, it is time we stopped glorifying a trait that keeps us from striving for excellence. Look at how we have been humiliated in front of the entire world.

It would be rash to reach this conclusion quite so easily. Of course, there is no room today for scraping together solutions with spit, grit and rubber solutions, particularly when it comes to events like the CWG. India has changed as have its capabilities and standards. And it is imperative that we deliver world class solutions to our needs, nothing less will do. But to be world class is not the same as being the same as the rest of the world. In the search for global acceptance it would be a shame if India were to become a pale replica of the developed world.

Jugaad is a unique Indian sensibility which is not merely about accepting mediocrity but about seeing the world in creative new ways. To be sure, when operating under the conditions of insufficiency it seeks to sacrifice the inessential for what is the most critical. Its principal role is to mediate between our need and our circumstances, between all numerators and denominators in the world, and in truth every problem is a dialogue between these two forces regardless of whether the larger context is one of insufficiency or not. Jugaad refuses to accept trade-offs as they appear at first glance and prises open the gaps that lie within. It is true that a lot of Indian examples of jugaad smack of crude compromises, but that is largely because they operated in a context that called for those kinds of solutions. The key is to look beyond the action at the underlying principle. Jugaad is not the same as ‘chalta hai’, for it always seeks to find a solution where otherwise none exists.

Take the practise of using old sarees to make quilts. The principle at work is to use the materiality of the fabric of the used saree in an application that did not have aesthetics as its primary purpose. The saree was used as a layer of soft cloth upon which other layers were added. The outer cover was made more pleasing, and we had a solution that was every bit as good as its more processed counterpart. The AC sleeper is another solution makes it viable for a large part of Indians to travel in air-conditioned comfort by giving up some room. It is a compromise but another that takes us up the value curve. In some the problem is jugaad is that it is called that. The sari-quilt is otherwise a great example of recycling and the A/C sleeper one of value creation. Put that way, they seem to bristle with modern promise.

Also, in a world where sustainable development is increasingly is the single biggest challenge the world faces, harnessing the power of jugaad is potentially a great source of competitive differentiation for India. When we start examining development from this perspective, the earlier notions of those with the greatest resources being the ones able to mount the best solutions start getting dismantled. The numerator-driven view of the world starts getting tough question from its neighbour below. Already we are seeing many examples of how Indian innovation with its combination of frugality and ingenuity is creating a new order of solutions hitherto unimagined by the developed world. We know the examples Devi Shetty Narayana Hrudalaya which delivers world class medical attention at a fraction of international costs, or the Tata Nano, which has imagined the building of the cars in new ways and so on. There is no better example of jugaad at work than the Ayodhaya judgement which has created a new possibility of reconciliation from among the ashes of distrust and hatred. Like most Indian solutions, it is by no means perfect but it works by shrugging off the either/or mode of choice making and imagines a new kind of possibility.

A setback like the CWG is bound to rattle the confidence of a newly emerging economy. But we are not a newly emerging civilisation. That is The Indian advantage and in trying to be like others, it would be a shame if we started attacking qualities that make us who we are. Jugaad is the name we give to our subversive disdain for reality; we could change its name if it offends us but it would be a shame if we were to lose this unique ability to see the world in a distinctive way.