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Letter from... the Republic of Jugaad

My favourite anecdote concerning Indian jugaad was told to me some years ago by an Indian lady who has been living in the UK for many years but had, for purely patriotic and sentimental purposes, retained her Indian passport. (The UK is a somewhat odd country when it comes to immigration. It is very hard to get in, but once you do it is laughably uncomplicated to settle down or even get a British passport. Many NRI immigrants I meet are fiercely patriotic about retaining their Indian passport until they become eligible for the UK passport at which point convenience quickly shunts patriotism out of the picture. And then they spend the rest of their lives making up for this grave burden on their soul, via the internet.) 

One day this lady went to the Indian high commission in London for some kind of passport-related procedure. Perhaps she was applying for extra pages. I do not recall exactly, and the details are in any case irrelevant. She was incensed to find the entire establishment in a state of complete chaos. Applicants ran from counter to counter seeking service. Staff members got along with an iota of interest in sorting out the mess, working at a pace that can only be called glacial. 

Exasperated, the lady went back home and made some calls. She had some contacts at the embassy and demanded an audience with somebody senior enough. Which she was eventually granted. She excoriated this mid-level diplomat for the chaotic customer service and then handed over a detailed set of improvements that could be carried out to improve things. A few days later she got a call, I was told, from the ambassador himself. 

The ambassador thanked her for her numerous excellent suggestions. Never again, he said, will she have to deal with such chaos again. Oh my god, she said, are you implementing all my suggestions? Not at all, he said. “Madam, you now have my personal number. Next time you come to the embassy you give me a call, and my staff will give you special treatment. Why you want to stand in line like other people?” 

Jugaad means many things to many people. To some it means bending the rules to just an inch of breaking point. To others it means bypassing rules and regulations in a suitably sneaky but still plausibly deniable way. To yet others it means breaking the rules and not getting caught. There also some who like to think of it as a spirit of innovation and ingenuity. These fellows then write books about it that people download as PDFs from the internet because innovative and ingenious jugaad. 

Whatever it is, jugaad is the lifeblood of the Indian republic. And in some cases it is vital for the republic. For instance, consider traffic. A very knowledgeable civil servant once told me that the moment drivers in Gurgaon or Mumbai began to follow traffic rules and conventions perfectly, especially things like lane discipline, both cities would instantly screech to a halt. There simply wasn’t enough tarmac, he said, for cars to actually drive in lanes, maintain a safe gap, and so on. Traffic jugaad was sometimes the only thing that kept the morass moving. 

All of which makes jugaad sound like some kind of Bollywood underworld don with a heart of gold. 

Jugaad itself is a reprehensible thing. But recently we have been reminded of the problem with jugaad... but in its undoing. 

Late last month, shortly after Yogi Adityanath’s appointment as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, there was a crackdown on meat shops and slaughterhouses in the state. Most of these, the BBC and many others reported, are owned and run by the state’s Muslim population. The move, thus, ostensibly seems to fit a "Hindutva" political agenda. Especially coming as soon as it did after the new UP government came into power. Hundreds of shops and several famous eateries shut down or curtailed operations as a result of the crackdown. 

Much outrage followed. 

One BBC report quoted a UP state official who said that one slaughterhouse had been closed because it was functioning illegally in someone’s home. The BBC goes on to say: 

“Locals admit that a large number of meat shops in the area did not have the mandatory licenses, but they allege that their efforts to secure them have been ignored for years.” The same UP state official told the BBC that the state was working on a new single-window licensing system for meat shops and abattoirs. 

Can there be a better case study of the perversities arising out of jugaad governance? 

No doubt previous UP governments were aware of the hundreds of shops and slaughterhouses functioning illegally in the state. It's quite possible that in many cases applications for permits were delayed due to corruption or general malaise. There can also be little doubt that in many cases these establishments were knowingly allowed to function because it was politically rewarding to do so. Thus you had a splendid scaffolding of jugaad propping up a meat industry that had all but normalized itself. 

And then comes along a government that decides it doesn’t really like the meat industry. And the jugaad nature of the industry gives it a perfectly sound case to shut the whole thing down.  

Imagine the havoc if a government decides to dismantle the networks of jugaad that pervade the life of the republic. And all because for far, far too long jugaad has been seen as a perfectly acceptable way of enshrining various rights, privileges and social obligations. It is not enough to outrage at the vacillations of jugaad, or what is and is not acceptable jugaad under each government. If we truly care to create a system of enduring rights and freedoms, then they must be grounded in the law, and not in creative perversions of the law that temporarily make social and political sense.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend. 

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