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.
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.
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).
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?
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!