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 starts by describing Mangalyaan, India’s super cheap but successful Mars orbiter mission.
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 simply not powerful enough, reach Mars?’ They launched Mangalyaan the same way David slew Goliath. It was ingenious. Basically the Indians kept circling the earth until enough momentum had built up to send the rocket like a sling shot off to Mars. Jugaad is revealed here as superior flexible thinking- which we could all use.
Nelson, who was a former editor of the Sunday Times in Scotland spent seven years in Delhi as a correspondent for both the Sunday Times and the Telegraph. Jugaad Yatra is his look at both the positive and negative aspects of this peculiarly Indian style of thinking.
What’s Jugaad and when did the idea of the book come to you?
Jugaad is used to describe a range of very different kinds of problem solving from the frugal innovations of poor people living with scarcity to rich people looking to game the system for their own benefit, from good people looking for solutions to help others to venal people looking to prosper at others’ expense. They all have in common an element of circumvention, of seeking ways to bypass the problem in our way with a solution which works around it rather than meet it head on. It can be good or bad depending on the intention of the protagonist but either way it has become a badge of identity for many Indians – a way of identifying as creative, resourceful, resilient people who will find solutions to problems in any circumstances.
The idea emerged initially from a conversation with my wife’s publisher, David Davidar, who was interested in it as a subject. I became increasingly fascinated by it as an Indian heuristic which helped to explain lots of aspects of Indian life – urban chaos, environmental pollution, political corruption, abuses of human rights in policing and the judicial system as well as the inspiring can-do innovation of poor people in the face of scarcity and daunting hardship. I read a book called Jugaad Innovation which attempted to package the best aspects of jugaad as a management philosophy for universal application which, I felt, missed the importance of jugaad in helping to understand much more about the way India is – good and bad.
2. What does Jugaad, as such a universally embraced concept within India, tell you about important cultural differences between east and west?
It reminds us of great talent which resides among some of the world’s most excluded and marginalised people and how that the potential of that great talent is wasted – imagine how much better the world would be if this tremendous creative ability was harnessed for wider benefit? It shows us how easily we in the west yield to simple logic and how the bounty of resources can make us lazy: hardship and scarcity make people work harder and think more laterally for solutions. The East is able to think around bends where the West can be trapped in straight lines. There is a danger however: circumventing rules, laws and standards is a serious problem and barrier to building trusted systems in the East.
3. In what areas could Europe and America most benefit from some Jugaad style thinking?
It can be both an inspiration and a warning to the West: The resourcefulness with which Indian scientists fired a rocket to Mars despite the rocket lacking the power to reach it is inspiring – the best science can be deployed for great benefit for those who may not be able to afford it, and we exclude many when we make a fetish of excellence. On the other hand, circumventing standards and gaming systems is a race to the bottom and India is a living example of both.
4. You tell a fascinating story about a homemade air conditioner unit in India, what are your other favourite Jugaad stories?
I love the story of, Arunachalam Muruganantham, the Tamil ‘tampon king’, who invented his own sanitary towel to help poor women and girls whose lives are blighted because they cannot afford to buy commercial pads. He braved ridicule, the embarrassment and resentment of his friends and family as he developed his own low-cost alternative – he sought used pads for experiment and study and at one stage used pig bladders full of blood to replicate a period. Today is he is courted as a hero: many frugal innovators, the best practitioners of jugaad, have to overcome ridicule and humiliation because of their work – it is a noble calling.