The word ‘jugaad’ is quite intrinsic to the moral fabric of India. Whether it is the Mangalyaan Mission to Mars in 2014 which was accomplished in one-tenth of the cost of the US’s Maven mission or the Tata Nano, which is the world’s cheapest car, our country boasts of a frugal entrepreneurial and inventive spirit, like no other. And this is what connects achievements of great stature to the simple act of fixing a leaking car radiator by a roadside mechanic with bubble gum, to someone failing a driving test and pleading with the examiner, “Bhaisaab, kuch jugaad kar do?”
British journalist, Dean Nelson’s first book, Jugaad Yatra: Exploring the Indian Art of Problem Solving, probes the different ways Indians improvise and innovate in their everyday life. For Nelson, who has lived in Delhi for 10 years reporting on India and South East Asia, the idea of writing this book began with a conservation with his publisher, David Davidar.
“It set me thinking about a homemade air conditioner we’d bought from a retired journalist, M.B Lal. We’d moved into a down at heel house in Nizamuddin which needed a lot of restoration work. Our youngest son’s bedroom had no exterior wall for an air conditioner and as I worried about what we’d do when the summer came, I saw an article in the paper about ‘Snowbreeze,’ a jugaad AC made by a carpenter and electrician using a plastic rubbish bin, a skateboard, a cheap extractor fan and two steel buckets of ice. I was inspired by the inventor’s determination and altruism – he made to it help those who couldn’t afford branded ACs – even though it wasn’t the best cooler. It also got me thinking about good and bad kinds of jugaad throughout Indian life,” he says.
Critics have often dismissed jugaad as an excuse for mediocrity and shoddy products, that India’s inclination towards a ‘quick-fix’ is keeping us from building long-lasting solutions. In Jugaad Yatra, the author writes, “Jugaad quick-fix solutions and circumvention are, it seems, at the heart of India’s greatest triumphs and moments of shame.”
The concept of jugaad can be quite expansive, so the structure of the book emerged from the question posed above: “How can the same word be used to describe such a wide range of things, from inspiring frugal innovation to cynical governance and corruption? The answer is that there is good and bad jugaad, so that set the structure – an opening essay which laid out the issues and then a journey through examples of good jugaad, then a hike over the bad.”
He adds, “People use the word jugaad to explain the success of ISRO space scientists in setting their underpowered PSLV rocket to Mars and also for corrupt fixes – the common thread is circumvention, bypassing rules, laws and received wisdom to find unique solutions. These can be good or bad, but they all involve a workaround approach.”
Nelson informs that working as a foreign correspondent in the digital and social media age one gets very little downtime. For him, the obvious challenge was in deciding which cases and issues were genuine examples of jugaad thinking and which were not – “it’s easy, once you start looking to see jugaad thinking everywhere in India, so some discipline was required,” he informs.
Currently based in Edinburgh, the journalist who has written for The Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph, has observed and written about the sub-continent for over a decade. How has he seen the place change, for better or worse?
Speaking about the capital of Delhi, he says, “In many ways, things are improving – the Delhi Metro is a huge boost to the city. Incredible restoration work has been done in Nizamuddin to revive the Mughal landscape and create jobs for local people. There’s a new airport, many news airports, lots of infrastructure work is going on, education is Delhi appears to be improving. At the same time, Delhi’s air is becoming unbreathable; people are retreating to their homes more. Jugaad thinking and a lack of planning still blight India’s cities.”
Having bought a ‘Snowbreeze’ himself, does he think that it can help readers unlearn and learn more about what their country is actually like?
Nelson says, “I feel many Indians have embraced jugaad as a badge of identity. It is a tribute to their resilience in times of scarcity and hardship. But it is also a millstone which holds India back. To make real progress, to really develop – and as someone who raised his children in Delhi, I want India to realise its incredible potential as soon as possible – it must embrace the antithesis of jugaad: sound, smart planning, a culture of compliance and the pursuit of excellence. India has some of the world’s best brains but it needs good planning and systems to harness them for the wider benefit of the country.”