The world of frugal possibilities

Jugaad Yatra is as much a celebration of the resourcefulness of the poor as it is a criticism of the absence of a formal system to optimize such talent

books Updated: Nov 24, 2018 09:33 IST
Sudhirendar Sharma
Sudhirendar Sharma
Hindustan Times
Snowbreezer,Mangalyaan,Gravity
A jugaad vehicles in Ghaziabad. (Sakib Ali/Hindustan Times)
175pp, Rs 599; Aleph

Most Indians are culturally wired to solve problems. The impoverished majority seems to have an inbuilt cognitive ability for jugaad, the quick-fix frugal innovation that can meet any challenge. It reflects a self-reliant optimism, one that has led to the creation of multiple variants of the scarecrow to protect mature crops, and affordable mechanical improvisations like the buttermilk-churning washing machine and the motorcycle-cum- tractor. ‘Next to impossible is only possible’ could well have been the national motto.

The search for a cheaper air conditioner first led journalist Dean Nelson, who spent a few years in Delhi reporting for the London’s Sunday Times, on his jugaad journey. This book is as much a celebration of the inspiring resourcefulness of the poor as it is a criticism of the absence of a formal system to optimize such talent. Not only did Nelson discover the low-cost work-in-progress Snowbreezer, a device that cools by passing air over an ice brick, but he also learnt that it was this jugaad mentality that helped the country propel its Mangalyaan spacecraft at less than the cost of the Oscar-winning Hollywood space thriller Gravity. Incidentally, neither of these innovations is a product of an economy that values and advances the jugaad mentality. This has not dampened the spirits of a people who continue to solve problems despite the challenges of material poverty and inspirational tales of optimism amid scarcity abound. Perhaps this scarcity is a blessing in disguise, one that has spurred creative improvisation for the development of products and designing processes that are flexible. During his jugaad journey, Nelson discovered that the unending quest for frugal invention has led people to bend the rules and beat the system. As an awareness of scarcity is deeply ingrained, most Indians instinctively start looking for ways to bypass the problem rather than question the system that led to the creation of that scarcity. This is manifested as much in the Indian penchant for jumping queues and offering bribes as it is in our ability to creatively manage obstacles by adopting quick-fix solutions. If there are pluses in pursuing jugaad as an innovative approach, the flipside has its moments of shame too.

Author Dean Nelson (Courtesy Aleph)

Should the jugaad mentality be allowed to circumvent the system? As long as Indian society struggles with overwhelming economic disparity, the relentless pursuit of jugaad will continue to be the best way for people to survive in a challenging ecosystem. Since the existing system cannot accommodate all innovations and transform their creators into entrepreneurs, a large number will need to pursue the survival options at their disposal. It may, therefore, be risky to paint the world of jugaad with a single brush.

Read more: How India’s talent for jugaad is finally finding a platform

An absorbing, revealing, and reflective journey on the resilience and resourcefulness of a people, Jugaad Yatra, which takes in both the dusty village roads of Yamunanagar and the swanky corporate arcades of Mumbai, indicts the government for its failure to properly nurture those very qualities. This tour of the enriching world of Indian improvisation suggests that jugaad ought to feature in the country’s list of prescriptions to tackle challenges in the decades ahead.

Like the English traveler who, during the Mughal period, recorded that ‘the natives are so full of ingenuity that they make any new thing by pattern how hard so ever it seems to be done,’ Nelson states that people in India seem to have an inbuilt ability to turn things around. This can be fully realized by institutionalizing ‘good jugaad’ and providing a platform for bottom-up innovations to address our many social, economic, and environmental challenges.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.

First Published: Nov 23, 2018 19:40 IST