Wednesday, September 8, 2010


(The Photos are of Pashan Gaon, where we live in Pune.)
Jugaad is a word that characterizes an approach to life in India. Roughly translated, it means “improvisation” or “an ability to make do” in the midst of challenging circumstances. It can be thought of as the spirit that says, “No problem” when the lights go out, the water tap is dry and the roads are flooded again. It’s the village entrepreneur hooking up a lawnmower engine to his bicycle rickshaw. It’s getting home alive in your space capsule using odds, ends and duct tape like they did in the Apollo 13 movie.

With a little bit of creativity, enterprise and hustle, the average Indian gets by and prospers. I think this is why you see Indian immigrants around the world rising to the top of their fields in all countries. The hassle of life has trained them to find solutions and novel approaches because you can’t rely on things to work the way they do in the West. Some even see jugaad as India’s secret weapon for economic success in the world of international competition. This is in spite of an educational system that stifles creative thinking. As the old saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and in a country where “doing the needful” is a daily requirement, jugaad comes in mighty handy.

When I was working at our community in Watunde Village, I’d regularly encounter mechanical problems that baffled me. Something would break or we didn’t have the proper tools (by my Western standards) or some complication would arise. “No problem,” Hari, our labor foreman, would say. First he’d try one thing, then another and another until finally we’d find a solution and get the job done. If not, we'd sometimes take our problem to Pirangut and go from shop to shop seeking a solution. Locals would always offer help, taking what we brought as a personal challenge. Passers-by would join in with opinions of their own and sooner or later, an answer would come or we’d be sent to Mr. So-and-So’s shop down the road who would help. If you visit India and ever find yourself lost, you’ll experience the same thing. Just ask for help from anyone on the street and a crowd will gather to give you half a dozen opinions on how to get where you want to go.

There is another side to jugaad that bears noting. When the British ruled India, the colonial economy was organized to give maximum benefit to the home country. India provided raw materials for manufacturing and a large market to consume goods made in Great Britain. Local industry was discouraged or effectively prohibited so as to eliminate any competition to English factories and workers. As a result, at the time of independence India was practically a pre-industrial society with a meager tradition of manufacturing beyond artistic craftsmen. This has had a lasting impact. To this day, India lacks civil engineers and skilled industrial tradesmen but has plenty of young people who can write computer code. On the other hand, the British did create an extensive colonial administration and staffed it with an army of Indian civil servants who became very adept at keeping accounts and filing records.

When independence came in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru set about fulfilling India’s “tryst with destiny.” For India’s political elite, this meant rapid industrialization, five-year plans and the creation of a socialistic economy. “The people” would own the resources and means of production while profits would go to the benefit of all. Or so the theory went. Confiscatory tax rates were imposed on the wealthy (97% in some cases); resources, manufacturing and industry were nationalized; the government assumed control of industrial management; political appointees became corporate decision makers; committees multiplied; and the Indian bureaucracy did what the British had trained it to do so very well—keep records and accounts by the boatload. In such an environment, money was driven underground and private enterprise was suffocated. But not totally, because there was always jugaad. The Indian penchant for finding creative waya to meet challenges asserted itself in another way.

India created the “License Raj,” a system whereby a government license was needed to do just about anything in the way of commerce beyond a family market. Power resided with those who could grant such licenses and enormous profits were possible for those who gained them. This was a system ripe for corruption. Someone with a little “creativity” could flourish with a bribe here and a payoff there. You could hire creative accountants and those tax rates weren’t such a problem anymore. You could creatively organize the “liberated” villagers into voting blocs to insure the election of political allies to stock those license committees with friendly faces. Government inspectors could be persuaded to look the other way if creatively induced. Just as in every country with a heavy-handed government bureaucracy or too many rules and regulations, jugaad found a way to circumvent the system and ended up nurturing a culture of corruption whose roots extend to every level of society.

Fortunately, much of the License Raj was dismantled in the 1990’s but its legacy lives on. It’s not without reason that India is sometimes called “The Land of the Scam.” The uncovering of governmental shenanigans by the press is constant and I sense an unspoken admiration for the audacity shown by some of the perpetrators. Their schemes can be brazenly over the top. I could write pages and pages describing them. Even the small scams are sometimes hilarious. I remember Tim Clark and I once having a good chuckle when he bought a box of “chikki,” a local peanut-brittle. It was in a nicely labeled box, properly wrapped and, on inspection, filled to the top with solid layers of the candy. Tim passed the chikki around to share but when the first thin layer was gone, lo and behold, there was no more chikki underneath. The top layer of solid candy had been supported by a few broken chunks below to make it appear as if the box was full. Scammed again! We laughed and laughed. This too is jugaad.

I suppose you have to take the good with the bad, but if India could weed out half the scams and corruption, it would have a dramatic impact. It’ll happen, but maybe not in my lifetime.