Posted by: John Elliott | February 14, 2012

Thinkers ponder what’s amiss in India – is it jugaad?

For decades India has survived, and sometimes thrived, by turning muddle and adversity into success. In the days of the licence Raj, this enabled the country to work, creakily, until systems and machinery broke down and were patched up again. Hindustan Motors’ Ambassador car (below) is perhaps the longest surviving example of patchwork success, with its 60-year old body tarted up with chrome and its innards replenished over the years with parts from Japan and elsewhere.

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That reliance on what is known as jugaad – making do and innovating with what’s available rather than looking for new levels of performance and excellence – is no longer working effectively.

Consequently, India is failing to flourish despite its many riches that range from ambitious youth, brilliant brains and abundant natural resources, to a mostly stable multi-religious democracy and an increasingly successful private sector.

The most internationally-visible recent example of jugaad  failing the country was in the preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, but it also applies to the failure to tackle corruption, poor governance, poor health and education, dreadful infrastructure, inadequate defence and security equipment and training, and much else besides. As a result, much of the country is in a constant state of unstable under-performance that often benefits those in authority because they can bypass the failures and gain corruptly from the chaos, but leaves hundreds of millions of people in various forms of poverty.

Ramachandra Guha, a prolific author, suggests in the current issue of Britain’s Prospect magazine that “instability is India’s destiny”. He says he makes this point as a historian, but he fails to argue it through and indeed devalues his long article with statements like the Indian “bureaucracy is incompetent”, which is wrong, or at least only partially true.

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Pavan Varma, a scholarly Indian diplomat (currently ambassador to Bhutan) suggested in India’s Mail on Sunday newspaper last weekend that the country needs a “course correction” because assumptions that “India  will somehow muddle through” were misplaced, given the size of the country’s problems.

 Mark Tully, the BBC veteran, hits the point in his latest book Non-Stop India (right) by asking whether India “is still muddling through”. He quotes a car mechanic who years ago sprinkled turmeric into his damaged Ambassador car radiator to “stop the leaks temporarily”. Commenting on traffic chaos at a nearby railway level crossing, the mechanic says: “Who does anything about anything in this country? Why are we Indians religious people? Because we know that this country only runs because God runs it. It’s all jugaar”. (Jugaar is a more phonetically correct spelling than the usual jugaad).

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Pavan Varma – along with most commentators – looks on jugaad as a totally positive attribute. At a power industry (IPPAI) conference in Goa last summer, he said that it involves “thinking out of the box….seizing the opportunity….refusing to accept defeat”. He saw it as a “reflection of resilience” that led to entrepreneurship.

The positive aspects are of course also being lauded internationally because of what some auto industry executives and others call India’s “frugal engineering”, where the best is made of minimal low-cost facilities.

I suggested at the conference that Varma was taking a rather romantic view, which failed to see that the “quick fix” mentality (like the motorbike water pump above, and the Pringle crisps-car repair below) stops India moving ahead because it is assumed that, even if deadlines and quality standards are missed, they can be quickly rectified – exactly the mindset that dogged the 2010 Commonwealth Games. One does of course see the same sort of make-shift solutions in other developing countries, but in India it has become a way of life. Harking back to Tully’s mechanic, God’s jugaad makes the railway crossing work (albeit chaotically) day after day, so if God and destiny are in charge, why should anyone bother to build a stable bridge for the road traffic?

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Indeed, while often solving problems and leading to some good engineering solutions, jugaad leads to complacency and acceptance of things as they are. It can undermine established systems and procedures because it deters the search for permanent solutions.

Last March, after Japan’s nuclear disaster, I suggested that such attitudes meant that India could not be relied on to ensure sustained safety if it built its planned series of nuclear power plants.

I cited various disasters in the previous year that stemmed from a jugaad mentality – extensive flooding every monsoon in Mumbai and elsewhere, radioactive steel scrap found in a Delhi recycling yard, failure to manage crowds and road congestion caused by Delhi’s annual auto and other trade fairs, gross inadequacies in police readiness and functioning, a disastrously inefficient reaction to a massive fire in Kolkata a year ago (and now more recent hospital disasters), plus countless railway crashes.

Jugaad also feeds into corruption, which thrives when quick fixes can be bought – why build a good road that would last years if you can bribe officials to accept quick-fix substandard work and then bribe them again to let you repair it!

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Responses

  1. […] this year, I wrote an article on this blog arguing that India could no longer survive as it has in the past by simply turning muddle and […]

  2. Thank goodness you wrote this – I have long pontificated on the subject. The real challenge with jugaad is that many speak with pride about it – and with reason: it has saved lives, kept the economy going, driven innovation. But it is now time to realize that it is not enough.
    What is ironic is that we are actually pretty good at planning in India: it is just that we do not implement so have to resort to jugaad.
    What to do?!
    GM

  3. Jugaad is essentially a means to an end, frequently and most regrettably, any which way! It is, as some others have rightly pointed out,not a solution, but a highly improvised set of tools/methods to extract the maximum ( not necessarily the best!) out of a set of highly complex, hopelessly imperfect (most of the times!) set of circumstances, mostly brought about by our own inefficiences.

    However, truth be told, it (jugaad) does work, somehow…however imperfectly and most often, with less than the ‘best of class’ standards. I agree with Ramchandra Guha that contemporary India seems wedded to instability, which is often the fountain-head of all these frustrating imperfections! But, that, sadly, is a given, in a land of increasing contrasts, where, as the cliche goes, several centuries co-exist, more seen as a ‘consequence of destiny’ than the failure of policy implentations. Till we are able to minimise these myriad pulls and pressures, through genuinely sustainable and inclusive growth patterns, I am afraid, jugaad will thrive in perpetuity!

  4. Another example of the “chalta haii mentality” is how the country clings to outmoded local government system. Here is an example of the problems of a country hanging on to mechanisms well past their time of usefulness. The classic article below underscores a problem faced by urban India.
    Please See: http://www.indiatogether.org/2005/jan/gov-manycooks.htm

    I should mention that other developing countries have moved to modernize their systems;but, India clings to its outmoded forms. These are not suited changing ground conditions.
    Little wonder: http://www.csmonitor.com/ World/Asia-South-Central/2010/ 1009/In-India-even-Indians- can-be-foreigners
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/ 12/01/world/asia/01delhi.html? scp=1&sq=cities&st=cse
    New Arrivals Strain India’s Cities to Breaking Point

  5. India’s problem it doesn’t want to do what is more difficult.
    It it is not jugaad that is the problem it is the “chalta hai” mentality.
    Consider that that agriculture income is not taxed. And during the boom states actually collected less tax. You are by the way a victim of the over 600 million who do open defecation. You should make sure your food is thoroughly cooked and your water thoroughly boiled. Until the defecation problem is solved, I am not coming to India.This is another example of the country’s chalta hai mentality. And why is it that it is in India (not world manufacturing center China where the worst air in the world can be found?

  6. your europe could not save save save everyone this winter……..where is your so called eu prep this time.

    oooooohhhhhhhhhh you are angry Mr because we didn’t buy your jets…hihihi

    u see India is huge country unlike yours.so we have huge problems.OK…

    stop showing Indian and Pakistani trains and start showing uk total debt.Greece economy…….

    it is really funny with over a trillion dollar debt BBC still keep it’s mouth wide open…where is that British Britannica today.over half of your industries are owned by us.

    forget India think what will happen to your way of living when China will start spending over 200 billion a year on army.

    I don’t understand why some men always try to throw mud on others without realizing that their hands are also getting dirty.

  7. I think the picture of the motorbike with its tyre attached to the pump is Pakistan’s and not India.

    thanks but I think not Omer – the livery is standard Indian railways whereas Pakistan is green. je

  8. No system is perfect whether it be Japanese or American or British. Inspite of great systematic reliance, Nuclear reactors in Japan went haywire when they were supposed to be fine; inspite of best policing in world Britain could not control young rioters looting Malls. Even Fuzzy Law states that there is ‘order’ in ‘disorder’. Jugaar does not make people slave of systems and keeps originality of individual. Systems do have limitations.We are proud of Jugaar which is a problem solving attitude in given set of time and resources. And jugaar attitude makes us going, otherwise there are many systems available here.

    Coming to Indian economy, inspite of global changes, the jugaar of Manmohan singh has kept India in good stead; may be solutions were sometimes weird. Indian bureaucracy has kept us binding and has delivered upto some extent. Its unfair to reject it totally.

    There is another attitude ‘ Mainu ke’ which literally means why should i bother?. Such an attitude is quite prevalent among Indians and does not allow people to think as Indian. But attitude cannot be changed over night. It takes years. And same is going to happen as Anna has rekindled some hopes that people think for country.

    By the way, a wonderful analysis done by John.

    with regards
    yk

  9. Juagaad is ‘make do’ or ‘cope’ or even ‘manage’. But it’s not a solution. it’s a workaround, except a workaround is temporary. Jugaad solutions runs its life until the next one.

  10. i actually found guha’s article rather a good introduction to india’s uniqueness , for the non indians (he is writing in a foreign publication.)
    his main point is that the near future of india is most unlikely to be smooth. and the reason behind this is the political parties which don’t even meet a minimum standard. whether it is a new point is certainly contesting. though it looks somewhat newish to me. whether it is a correct analysis is also debatable. despite many failings some of the politicians indeed were/are trying to set right policies.
    whether it was the communal bjp in ’97-02 or the weak and nepotistic congress.
    but there is no doubt that because of the standard of the politics – the future looks potentially volatile.
    let’s look at congress and bjp more closely. both seems to be trying to deepen the fault lines. recent bjp’s electoral manifesto sounds like they do have a hidden agenda of a “hindu pakistan”. congress with it’s rushdie, batla house antics looking for exploiting the fault lines than mending fences.
    about some of his over simplified observations like bureaucracy – this is after all a column and not a book .
    i mostly agree with you on your observation on jugaad. but i think the question should not be what is amiss but what is it which makes india so unique . why despite such a overwhelming complexity india still is going in the right direction -however haphazardly.

  11. I completely agree with this excellent article and its funny as this has been the topic of conversation in my family recently.

    Jugaad is fine when there is no other choice due to lack of access to resources or rather lack of access of the ability to remove bottle necks. This has not been the case with India for a very long time. The prevalent culture in India of “halta hae chalta hae”, acceptance of lowest possible quality of workmanship, service, products, virtually everything in fact, has to change. I have recently come back from 2 weeks holiday in India. My parents have built a lovely house.The standard of construction is excellent. If one looks carefully, there are more small errors in say the window fitting, how horizontal or not the AC units are, minor details with the plumbing than an equivalent house in say Malaysia, other parts of SE Asia and Europe. There is insufficient attention to detail, exactness and quality in all walks of life. I am uncertain if Indians were always like this say when the subcontinent accounted for >30% global GDP/economic activity in the pre-British era.

    I’m convinced that the current, still relatively protectionist approach to the economy, has allowed such attitudes to become entrenched with lack of competition feeding complacency. They are not irreversible. Currently, many foreign companies initially find it hard to get quality of products to be consistently high but with a lot of effort this can be turned around eg. Seimens India and textile exports for luxury garments. Indeed, one thing central government in Delhi could do is make a start by setting up say an “Indian Guild of Plumbers”, “I.G. of Electricians” etc like the Germans, with each state having its own chapter and dedicated courses to train good tradesmen and women. This would kick start a culture of quality in one area of the economy.

    India has no choice but to change but I suspect it will take decades for such cultural attitudes to alter significantly.

  12. Alas the Jugaad mentality has been the bane of India! Though it provides quick fix cheap solutions, it robs us of the desire for system or course corrections. The examples quoted by John are very apt and true to life. Such things can be seen everday in rural and urban India. Corruption has now erupted in never seen before scales due to the quantum jump in our economic growth. There is simply more money availble in the system for anyone who wants it! We need to develop zero tolerance for corruptio if we want better governance, efficiency, performance by the government. Wonder when we can break this curse.. It is so deep rooted that it can bring down the entire tree if we attempt to clean up India!

  13. i agree and i agree a lot. if india does not changes it attitude towards jugaad,,the way they feel that its rather good for them,,india does not deserves to be a nuclear power and a world power which it dreams to become one day.


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