Why is “Jugaad” so lauded as a form of innovation in India? By its very nature it implies an inability to plan, to look ahead and envision. It is reactive in nature, the ultimate in just-in-time adaptation. It is also a cop out by people whose task it is to provide a product or a service to those who can’t afford to buy an often expensive alternative.
Take Jugaad itself, the now famous rural vehicle comprising a retrofitted diesel engine originally intended to power agricultural irrigation pumps. It is slow and unsafe but since it can lug 15-20 people at any time and costs little, it has been touted as a cost effective transportation solution for rural Indians. But why don’t our rural folk saddled with pathetic roads deserve better means of transportation? Why must the swank new metro coaches and the flyovers and underpasses be restricted to big cities? If I was a villager I would certainly look upon this as blatant discrimination.
“You can’t have cake. Have this delicious new bread!” Since these vehicles are not registered with any transport authority, the government can conveniently feign ignorance about their existence but rest smug that the problem of commutes in the villages has been addressed by private enterprise. So what if little children must share space with herds of cattle in their daily ride to school.
Or take the biodegradable, refrigerator Mitticool which requires no electricity but keeps water, vegetables, and dairy products cool in the heat of the desert. Sure it is a smart idea using as it does local material and costing barely a couple of thousand rupees. But calling it a piece of innovation, is a stretch. Its raison d’etre is the fact that not enough cheap power is available in rural areas. At best it is an adaptation of the old clay matka used to store water. And while you can doff your cap to the inventor Mansukhbhai Prajapati, what does it say of a government that has failed miserably to harness the abundant solar energy available in the country to power households in the same desert areas where Mitticool is emanating from.
A solar panel stands on the roof of a house in Halliberu village, Karnataka. (Bloomberg)
Other countries have done it. In Germany solar power now accounts for 10% of the country’s overall electricity. This is a country that decided after last year’s Fukushima disaster in Japan to phase out nuclear power by 2022, when 30% of the country’s electricity needs will be met by renewable energies.
And then there is Iceland, the only country in the world which obtains 100% of its electricity and heat from renewable sources. The principal driver to that has been the tapping of geothermal energy as well as hydro power. Harnessing a country’s natural conditions to create a mass impact is of a piece with adaptive innovation which sadly Mitticool can never be.
That’s because innovation, derived from the Latin noun innovatus, meaning renewal or change, has to be scalable. Jugaad is an antithesis to that and is counter-productive to actual innovation. It is short- term and a quick fix. It doesn’t take civilization forward in the way the worldwide web did or drug delivery has done. Look at our contribution in the area of drugs or that eternal favourite, information technology.
The asthma inhaler is a great example of impactful innovation. In the 55 years since Riker Laboratories president George Maison, originated the idea for the inhaler, nearly 75 million people across the world have benefited from the use of metered dose inhalers to treat asthma, according to 3M, the company that purchased the inventor of the inhaler. It is a life saver for any asthmatic and its impact on society cannot be matched by a reverse-engineered drug whose claim to fame is its low price.
Stuck in the morass of low cost, cheap products, we embrace jugaad perhaps because as a society we hate the concept of disruptive creativity. Tweaking things, taping them up to make them work, applying a little dash of cement to plug a hole, that’s what we revel in. Ensuring a new road doesn’t cave in with the first monsoon by adhering to strict standards of quality construction or a time schedule that asks for 24 hours of surface drying, is outside our comfort zone. Which is why, we salute jugaad. The Delhi metro one of the few models of efficiency in India is not based on jugaad but on a stringent adherence to processes.
In his 2007 book ‘The Myths of Innovation,’ author Scott Berkun, says the word innovation should be reserved for civilization-changing inventions like electricity, the printing press and the telephone—and, more recently, perhaps the iPhone. Each of these required leaps of faith and of creativity.
And while we are good at spelling bee contests we aren’t so good at contests which test our ability to stretch the limits of possibilities. Take Google’s Code Jam, the international programming competition hosted and administered each year by Google. It consists of a set of algorithmic problems which must be solved in a fixed amount of time. Competitors may use any programming language and development environment to obtain their solutions. Each year for the last 3 years, Indians have been among the largest number of initial competitors.
In the last 3 years (2009, ‘10, ‘11), 4360 Indians applied for the contest perhaps lured by the promise of a job at the Internet leader. After the grueling multi-round contest, not one Indian was left in the final round. By contrast China had 4759 contestants in round one and as many as 11 reached the finals. More, of the 1727 Russians who participated in round one, 22 reached the finals.
Of the 800 Poles in Round one, 8 reached the finals rounds in these three years. In 2012 in the qualification round, 17% of the contestants were Indians (3,008 out of 17,802). By round 3, when the going has gotten tough, India is down to 0.7% (3 out of 401). So again, despite starting out with by far the highest number of contestants, just 3 Indians have survived to round 3, compared to 83 Chinese, 77 Russians, 36 Japanese, 25 Americans, 21 Poles, 16 Ukrainians and so on.
And while this may be a coincidence, we just have to look around at the lack of any world-class software with a Made-in-India label to see where we stack up on the global IT innovation scale.
Despite our vast armies of programmers there is so little by way of original software creation we can boast of. Innovation in the Indian context would be a road making mixture that won’t ever crack. It would be a simple device that would plug the leaks in water pipelines across our metros which through which 40% of the water capacity is wasted. But even that piece of software will be created by an Israeli company or an American one.
So how do we develop the cultural enzymes to do real innovation? First banish the premium we have started placing on crisis-management and work on ensuring the crisis doesn’t dawn in the first place.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emma’s reluctant suitor Mr Darcy says: “…you are really proud of your defects in writing, because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which, if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting. The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.”
That could well be the definition of “jugaad”.