Last week was a sad one in India. As if, the tragedy in Uttarakhand was not enough, Bihar featured in the news. It was heart wrenching. Poor, innocent kids had their lives cut short in a cruel manner by just being part of a scheme applauded as much for its benevolence as for its ingenuity.
The culprit, not the ‘mid-day meal’ scheme, No. But, we the people of India. We who think applying short cuts like storing cooking oil in pesticide canisters is as good a solution as buying proper vessels for the job. Someone who was in-charge of that scheme in that particular village school might have thought of this ‘jugaad’ to save some extra bucks. Innovative? I think not.
In recent years, I have developed an almost criminal hatred for the word ‘jugaad’ and the glorification that we bestow on it in India. As a definition in Harvard Business Review (yes, correct) puts it, Jugaad is “a hindi word that loosely translates as ‘the gutsy art of overcoming harsh constraints by improvising an effective solution using limited resources.’ Jugaad is an antidote to the complexity of India: a country of mind-boggling diversity; pervasive scarcity of all kinds; and exploding interconnectivity’ “. The definition is accurate, it infact is a gutsy art of managing within the given means and has been effective for all these years because of the political and social environment we lived in. Decades of decadent governance created a system which thwarted growth in any form. Given the basic human spirit to succeed, we devised a system to work around the system and be innovative. But, still to me it is neither sustainable nor long term.
India ranks 66th in the latest Global Innovation Index, just slightly above Mongolia and Peru and most of the African continent. The leaders in this list are almost cliched, countries like Switzerland, UK, USA, most of western Europe and Korea. Not that such surveys matter or should matter. But, lets just observe things around ourselves and try to form an opinion on innovativeness in our culture and how it is of service/disservice to us as a nation.
Try doing a google image search on the world jugaad and the first pictures thrown out are of that rickety vehicle which farmers in north india created from spare parts of some hundred odd vehicles. And, mind you these things move. But, that they also create major traffic contraptions in Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh is the price we pay for them. These things look great when the argument is about individual ingenuity and the audience is far removed from these actual things on the ground like for example in a Harvard case study. But, lets not forget that these vehicles were created with not even a passing thought about on-road safety for the driver, passengers or fellow road users and the argument takes another dimension. We tend to think that jugaad is the Indian way of innovation and go on glorifying it without realising the opportunity cost. Infact any culture that celebrates a short cut approach to learning and innovation is more or less doomed. Whenever I am in Himachal, I experience another jugaad. The patchwork on the roads to fill the potholes (usually, just before a high profile minister has planned to visit). Why rely on stop gap arrangements for something as crucial as roads? Why not build a better road in the first place?
My first and foremost argument against jugaad is, thats it is not scalable. It is not scalable because it is not a product of systematic innovation. And, systematic innovation is exactly what India needs. Rather than glorifying jugaad in classrooms and hence corrupting innocent thought processes, we should create a society and culture of learning that facilitates and encourages scalable and long term solutions. I spent a lot of time thinking about truly inventive and innovative products which came out of India in the last decade or two. After a lot of thinking the only thing that checks the box is ‘Tata Nano’. A product which is thoroughly Indian, solves a highly local problem, a marvel of frugal engineering and something which actually went through the de rigueur steps of being an ‘Idea’ to ‘Proof of concept’ to ‘Prototype’ to ‘Product’ to now a ‘Utility’.
Apart from Nano, nothing sticks out as truly innovative from either Indian businesses or the scientific community. We are one of the biggest drug manufacturers in the world, and what do we manufacture? Generic Drugs. Yes, drugs which change a little something from the actual formulation so that it does not breaches the patent but still has the desired effect. It has indeed helped us by reducing the price of a lot of essential drugs but we are still at the mercy of someone in the west to actually do research and find solutions to existing medical problems. Generics are the short cut we chose to take, rather than using the enormous brain power that exists for pushing boundaries of scientific discovery or finding the cure for cancer.
Jugaad would never work for complex problems. It is a highly individual thing, it highlights great skill at individual level. I was astonished to see a scholarly paper by a professor at one of the IITs, which talked about jugaad and glorified everything associated with it. This paper was particularly disturbing because it came from someone who should have been teaching his students otherwise. IITs are supposed to be an emblem of Scientific and Engineering principles of doing stuff, not a place where India’s brightest minds are professed about short-cut approaches and temporary fixes. Look around, absolutely nothing we use in our modern day to day life has been conceived, designed and built by jugaad. The whole mindset of “aaj kar lo, kal ki kal dekhenge” could never be of service to us in the long term. All the great products/services in the world which helped to take humanity further have been built by pure and relentless pursuit of innovation and have set apart nations that ideated and built them from those which just consume.
Hence, I refuse to believe that jugaad is an antidote to the complexity of India. It in my humble opinion is something that helps to keep India complex. So, the next time you try to glorify jugaad and discount serious innovation and long term sustainable solutions for short cut fixes, think again. And, please tell your kids the importance of scientific discovery and engineering achievement. Before I end this post, here is a quick pop quiz for you all. Pick any product/solution from the list below that you think was conceived by Jugaad:
Space Shuttles; Self driving cars; Geostationary Satellites; Aircraft Carriers; Maglev trains; Microprocessors; MRI scanners; Cameras; Smart phones; TVs; Remote controlled drones; Nuclear power plants; Artificial organs; Non-invasive surgery; Solar energy panels; Microwave ovens; Vacuum cleaners; Automobiles; Water desalination plants; Antibiotics; Programming languages; Internet.
I thought so.