India's winning formula for hard economic times

India's winning formula for hard economic times

India's winning formula for hard economic times

This is a tale of two Indian vehicles — the Jaguar and the jugaad. The former is one of the world’s finest cars, once a strictly British product, now owned by Tata Motors of India. The XJL Supersport, which can cost upward of $1,00,000, comes with a 510-horsepower engine, massaging seats, mood lighting, a hard drive and electric rear blinds.

Then there is the jugaad (pronounced jew-gaar), which is nothing like a Jaguar. It is, for one thing, illegal: a truck tossed together, saladlike, in the sheds of northern India, beyond regulators’ view. Parts from old jeeps are cut and welded and combined with wooden planks to form a chassis. An engine commonly used for irrigation pumps is attached.

Actual bells and whistles may be added as adornments, and the wheels are painted by hand.

The truck gives India’s village dwellers a cheap ride: 10 cents for a half-hour journey with a few dozen others. So compelling is their business logic that jugaads have become popular in dowries.

The truck may be obscure, but the culture behind it is now a management fad. Jugaad, not as noun but as verb, is suddenly the talk of consulting firms like McKinsey and companies like Best Buy in the United States.

The slang Hindi verb ‘jugaad,’ as translated for managers, means to make something much like a jugaad. It is to be innovative despite scarcity — a winning formula for hard economic times. Management gurus cite India’s ultra-low-cost creations as inspiration: the $800 electrocardiogram, the $24 water filter, the $2,500 car, the $100 electricity inverter, the $12 solar lamp.

But these represent only a sliver of what jugaad is. It is more than frugal innovation; jugaad is a way of life, here as elsewhere, that has anticipated important movements of the 21st century, from open-source technology to cultural fusion. From years of observation in India, some core tenets emerge, many of use beyond the business world.

Fatalistic creativity
India is not an easy place, and to be fatalistically creative is to transcend its hardships. It is to chafe daily against the way things run; to resist the idealistic temptation to change all that; and to strive instead for success and solutions within the constraints.

India is chronically short of small change, for example. Small businesses rarely have the coins and 10 and 50 rupee notes that most transactions require. They often solve the problem by sweetening the deal, jugaad style. A pharmacist may give you Orbit chewing gum instead of Rs 5; a friend recently received three Cadbury éclairs and a Tehelka magazine when a toll-booth operator couldn’t locate Rs 25.

You can perhaps hear echoes of the jugaad spirit in the careerist idealism of the West’s Generation Y. Those whose parents flocked to the barricades, dreaming of a new order, seem more likely to work on a Citibank microcredit project today — fatalistic about the system writ large, but creative within its folds.

Jugaad, as a truck and a way of life, involves a capitalism different from the market philosophy that informs the West — and one that prefigured the interesting new directions that capitalism is taking today.

Long before the local-everything movement took off, jugaad counselled a face-to-face capitalism in which you knew the people who made your products, married your children into the families who lent you money and prayed with your customers and suppliers.
Long before Wall Street highlighted the perils of virtual-reality capitalism, jugaad was skeptical of what it could not see. It encouraged the tangible capitalism of the little guy who must stay afloat in a churning market, not of government-sized businesses too big to fail.

And long before social entrepreneurs discovered ‘impact investment’ and ‘triple bottom lines,’ jugaad nourished a humanistic capitalism that blurred the line between community service and profit making, in which builders of institutions felt no ideological compulsion to choose between them.

Anyone sourcing the black-and-yellow Mumbai taxi, an exemplar of jugaad, was crowd-sourced before Wikipedia and open source before Firefox.

The taxis, Premier Padmini sedans built from a Fiat design in the middle of the last century, haven’t been upgraded in decades. Their maker has faded from the scene. But in jugaad’s India, this means that anyone can be a Padmini mechanic, supplier or decorator.
Mumbai taxis brim with experiments: blue lights, metal poles, electrical outlets, tune-giving idols, massive speakers, tiny fans, radios controlled by light switches.
Today, even as these taxis give way to new Hyundais and the like, the spirit lives on in cellphones: Unlike in the West, where you must contact Vodafone and only Vodafone for connection issues or Nokia and only Nokia for handset woes, on India’s streets, as across the developing world, every third store is a one-stop cellphone shop. They poke into your device with screwdrivers and pens, recharging your credit, answering queries on behalf of a company they do not work for.

Both-end truths
A K Ramanujan, the late Indian folklorist, once asked whether there was a specially Indian way of thinking. His conclusion was that Westerners were more comfortable with truths applied universally to every case, while Indians resisted the universal, preferring situation-specific solutions.

This is philosophical jugaad: an approach to human dilemmas that rejects the either-or.
In the realm of social change today, Indians seem to feel less need than most to label and define themselves. They are content with the hodgepodge identities that you might find in a shed-made north Indian truck.

Young city dwellers pursue romantic love today, in defiance of arranged marriage. But they often don’t mind parents trying to arrange marriages on a parallel track. They may snort cocaine and massage their father’s feet in the same evening, seeing no contradiction.

Gay Indians likewise employ jugaad in navigating a society that is hyper-globalised on the surface and conservative underneath. As Parmesh Shahani, the author of ‘Gay Bombay: Globalisation, Love and (Be)longing in Contemporary India’, told me, gay Indians are different from gays elsewhere in preserving contact with parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts even as they circulate in a gay universe. They oscillate easily from family business meetings to gay clubs to cousins’ weddings.

“It’s not a case of ‘Let’s have our own ghetto in the Castro and all will be OK’,” he said. “They rather choose the difficult path of negotiating, on a daily basis, and with a tremendous amount of jugaad, the tangled web of relationships that bind them.”

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