Book Review: Dean Nelson’s ‘Jugaad Yatra: Exploring the Indian Art of Problem Solving’

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New Delhi | July 29, 2018 1:17 AM

Yet another book on jugaad, but one that drives home the point that it’s a problem and not a solution. That India needs to aim for perfection and not make-do.

Jugaad Yatra: Exploring the Indian Art of Problem Solving by Dean Nelson (Image: Twitter)

Of all the Indian words added to the Oxford Dictionary, jugaad is probably one of the best known. The hashtag #jugaadnation is insanely popular on Twitter and Facebook, spouting images that evoke mirth and marvel—the tea vendor’s kettle with five spouts, coolers or split ACs split further with a pair of pants, getting a night’s sleep in unreserved train coaches in a lungi hammock, and so on.

Corporates and management students around the world are familiar with the word, with many of our jugaadu successes having made into case studies!

In a nation with more than 1.3 billion people and far fewer means, such creativity and ingenuity is to be expected. The problem starts when the world’s journalists reporting on India find this a quirky ‘human-interest’ story and make jugaad the symbol of the Indians’ innovative abilities. For a nation made up of cynics and navel-gazers in equal parts, these stories of quick-fixes and improvisation become another way of showing off our dysfunctional yet successful democracy!

I hate to pour cold water on the social media chest-thumping. Jugaad may signify innovativeness, but jugaad is not innovation. Jugaad is make-do, driven by a single cause: lack of resources or lack of access to necessary resources, which can be inputs, but mostly money. Jugaad is a useful, temporary fix for the specific circumstances, but it is not a scalable solution. It is a human-interest story, not an academic paper that can stand expert scrutiny and testing. Jugaad can be a brilliant testimony to the average Indian’s indomitable effort to conquer sloth, shortage, red tape and sheer bad luck, but jugaad always stops short of inventions that can make us proud.

Dean Nelson’s book is probably the fifth or sixth book in English on jugaad! A British journalist with excellent credentials, Nelson was clearly stirred by jugaad to make an exploration of the art of problem solving in India the most provocative and exciting theme of his 10-year stay. Impressed by the Mangalyaan Mission to Mars in 2014 that was achieved at one-tenth of the cost of the US’s Maven mission, and after long conversations with Anil Gupta of the Honey Bee Network, he decided to test jugaad for himself. Faced with buying a cheap alternative to the air conditioner for his third child’s room, he tried out retired journalist MB Lal’s ‘invention’ of Snowbreeze, which comprised a plastic rubbish bin, a skateboard and a cheap extractor fan, and which needed procuring two steel buckets of ice for `60 every day. It was painstaking, dissatisfying and didn’t really work.

Many such examples flood Indian markets, and consumers go for it too, exactly as American consumers flock to Wal-Mart stores and Chinese goods conquer the world! The Snowbreeze was the perfect example of basic Indian jugaad—altruism, lack of resources, fellow feeling and, foremost of all, a personal problem solver. “Jugaad quick-fix solutions and circumvention are, it seems, at the heart of India’s greatest triumphs and moments of shame,” writes Nelson. One of these triumphs is Mangalyaan’s success, costing just about $70 million, making India the only country to enter Mars’ orbit at first try. Tata Nano was another, but Ratan Tata surely wouldn’t like his nationalistic efforts to offer an affordable car for a lakh of rupees called a jugaadu effort. Westerners may marvel that Mangalyaan’s budget was less than the production budget of Gravity, the award-winning Hollywood film, but frugality is only the first short step, the scale model to something remarkable and life-changing. When frugality and cutting corners become the mantra, we have disasters like the Akash tablet computer, the Make in India inaugural function, Commonwealth Games, and an array of medical tragedies!

Nelson’s book is an extremely good read; it excellently captures the way of jugaad and its hydra-headed manifestations. He has a sensitive and compassionate eye, and I love it when he quotes scientist Prafulla Chandra Ray on how castesim had affected the study and practice of science in India. The problem with the book is a very simplistic view of jugaad, bunching it with every usage of the word. He is mistaken here; to Indians, jugaad has always been make-do. That’s one of the reasons jugaad has been stretched to mean bribes/speed money, and circumvention of rules and laws. There is no “good or bad jugaad”; all jugaads are mediocre or poor. The workaround approach here may be Archimedes’ Eureka moment, but the lab-testing phase is unavoidable to achieving something great. Good jugaad won’t get us there.

Nelson also confuses jugaad thinking with jugaad—like when he says clean drinking water or affordable surgery to poorer families is jugaad. It isn’t. Jugaad thinking is like design thinking, a different look at a seemingly intractable problem. If jugaad really worked, we would have solved India’s sanitary and waste problem by now. Nelson hits the nail only when he says “it is a millstone that holds India back. To make real progress… (India) must embrace the antithesis of jugaad: sound, smart planning, a culture of compliance and the pursuit of excellence”.

Jugaad hurts Indian business in the long run. If there was no jugaad, there might have been no Ambanis, but there would also not be such systemic bank, export-import, licensing, and other kinds of frauds. Too few in India are demanding excellence right now. We have become so used to imperfection that anything goes, and the importance of human lives has depreciated. Jugaad has worked so far because the alternative, in a country where government is too far from the poorest, is zero, and any number higher is a plus. As we grow, it’s time to seek perfection; just good is not enough!

Paromita Shastri is a freelance writer.

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