India in Transition

The Power of the Indian Inventor

Angela Saini pic.jpg
Angela Saini
07/18/2011

The pleasure of speaking multiple tongues is that you will occasionally come across a word that would otherwise be lost in translation. Every language has these hidden expressions, which give away something unique or quirky about a culture. And like German’s schadenfreude, or the Yiddish kvetch, India has a particularly interesting one of its own: jugaad. A crude translation might be “making do,” but then that wouldn’t really do justice to all the shades of meaning, spanning the nefarious to the ingenious. For those in power, jugaad could be the practice of giving bribes to help oil the slow machinery of government. For the cash-strapped householder, it may be doing a botch-job to temporarily fix a problem. But in the context of science and technology, it often means coming up with quick, improvised solutions to fill an urgent need.

The latter definition is the most fascinating for science journalists like myself. In carrying out interviews for my book, Geek Nation, scientists often mentioned that they resorted to building or fixing their own laboratory equipment rather than calling in professionals because this was faster, or that they shared facilities with other labs because of a lack of resources and funding. Researchers in India constantly struggle against poor infrastructure, forcing them to be inventive. But further down the scientific ladder, at the grassroots level, jugaad also manifests itself in a vibrant culture of grassroots technologists. There are thousands – possibly hundreds of thousands – of amateur inventors all over India, many with only a rudimentary education, building devices to help their local communities or working alone on even grander projects.

I recently spoke to a businessman from Mumbai who happens to also be a lay engineer, devoting his spare time to designing a solar-powered air conditioning unit for his local hospital (it operates on the same principle as a fridge; collecting the heat energy that drives the system from large reflective panels facing the sun). And in the northern Indian state of Punjab, you’ll find a breed of rickety homemade truck that has adopted the same name as the process by which it was created: a Jugaad.

Around two decades ago, Indian Institute of Management professor Anil Gupta collated hundreds of such examples into a knowledge-sharing platform called the Honey Bee Network. Now feeding into the work of the government’s National Innovation Foundation, which helps commercialize ideas like these, its list of innovations includes a pedal-powered washing machine, an automated onion planter, and a crutch that doubles as a foldable seat, headlight, alarm, and umbrella stand.

The breadth and ambition of the creations amassed by the National Innovation Foundation is proof that invention is something of a cultural habit in India. It has become so pervasive over the decades that even my parents, who moved to London from India in the 1970s, still tend to make or fix objects themselves rather than buying them new or replacing them. My father – a do-it-yourself fanatic – built the wooden deck in his garden from scratch, and my mother has insisted on sewing my dresses since I was a baby.

Prevalent though it is, it’s also a phenomenon you’ll find in every society that suffers resource shortages. African countries are similarly scattered with tales of village-level innovations, from clay pot fridges to rainwater harvesters. In wartime Britain in the 1940s, it was common for housewives to come up with clever ways to make the most of their measly food and clothing rations. Today, such is the attraction of grassroots gadgets, that hacker and maker communities in the U.S. have formed a countercultural movement that reworks vintage electronics as an alternative to expensive, disposable ones.

In India, though, this all goes beyond making life a little easier or being fashionable. The inventiveness of its grassroots engineers and scientists is believed to be a powerful economic tool. The same cost-efficient spirit of jugaad that lead to the pedal-powered washing machine has also helped inspire the extra-low-cost and hugely popular Tata Nano car, the growth of bargain-basement IT outsourcing, and even the success of the low-cost space program. N. Narayana Moorthy, a project director at the Indian Space Organization, for instance, said that a visiting NASA official was left open-mouthed when he saw how much Indians were able to achieve on such low budgets.

This isn’t to say that jugaad is always a good thing. If necessity is the mother of invention, then a lack of resources combined with the desperate need for new technology is the mother of short-term cheap fixes. India’s scientific publication rate lags sorely behind those of Europe, the U.S., Australia, Japan, and now also China. There still aren’t strong scientific authorities to separate hokum from good science, or dig out every case of fraud. And the best research is limited to a handful of established labs, such as the sixty-five-year-old Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

For truly world-class research to thrive in India, the infrastructure must improve and funding needs to be ramped up, as is already happening in China. There are moves to do this; the Indian government has committed to doubling the proportion of GDP spent on research and development. Pharmaceutical giants and IT multinationals are also opening up large new centers in cities like Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad. And Indian software companies are finally achieving the kind of profit margins that may allow them to invest more heavily in original research, as done by Microsoft and IBM. The Indian government’s hope is that the country may one day enter the same scientific league as the U.S. But the truth is, it will be slow going. In the meantime, Indians will just have to make do.

Angela Saini is an award-winning science journalist based in London. Her book, Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World, was published in spring 2011 by Hodder. She can be reached at angela.d.saini@gmail.com .

 


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation.

© 2011 Center for the Advanced Study of India and the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. All rights reserved.

On jugaad I appreciated this

On jugaad

I appreciated this piece by Angela Saini, and look forward to reading "Geek Nation". It will surely add to the literature review that I have been conducting for an article that I am currently writing about discourses and practices of "jugaad" among police in Uttar Pradesh, among whom I conducted an ethnography of their everyday practices for two years. In this article--which I plan to submit to a cultural anthropology journal, since it has comparative implications for theories of culture--I am exploring specifically how jugaad as a practiced concept routinely legitimates what many would often call "corruption" among state officials *and* common citizens in contemporary India.

Over the last decade or so, jugaad has become quite the buzzword among Indian and transnational business persons and entrepreneurs, as well as among scientists, engineers, journalists and others. It appears in many business reviews, on international business blogs, as the key concept in the opening chapter of Kamal Nath's "India's Century: The Age of Entrepreneurship in the World's Biggest Democracy", etc. It was trotted out quite heavily during the Commonwealth Games scandal. As most of us know, there was even a Bollywood film titled Jugaad released in 2009, starring Manoj Bajpai as an advertising executive who had to be "creative" about saving his business during the Delhi sealing drive, and did so using jugaad--of course, the film ends with the good jugaadu living happily ever after as a successful business man. In my own writing, I have quite critical things to say about the recent trend of propping up jugaad as the master key to some kind of Indian culture of inventiveness that is going to drive the country into its rightful place of power and development in the 21st century (yes, people really do make these kinds of claims).

If she has not already done so, Angela Saini might be interested to read a critical piece written by Thomas Birtchnell, who's in the sociology dept. at Lancaster University in the UK, about the some of the dangers of praising jugaad too highly as "the way India(ns) innovate(s)". The article will not be out in print until December 2011, I think; but it has been accepted for publication by the peer reviewed journal "Contemporary South Asia" and Thomas was kind enough to send me a galley proof. It is a good piece, and serves as a much needed corrective to the jugaad hype. Here is his website, with the full citation, in case anyone wishes to contact him to inquire about obtaining a copy of the article:

http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/sociology/profiles/Thomas-Birtchnell/

My own critique of the transnational trend of trumpeting about jugaad comes from the perspective of a cultural anthropologist, who finds extremely problematic the ways that a "culture" or "spirit" of jugaad among Indians is being essentialized and reified in both national and transnational discourses. We might ask: what does it mean to say that "India" or "Indians" have a particular way of innovating or inventing that is "something of a cultural habit"... or that jugaad "manifests itself in a vibrant culture of grassroots technologists"? And what are the implications of linking up these claims about culture with already highly problematic discourses of development, in its both economic and scientific forms? And isn't it contradictory to imply an essential "Indian-ness" to jugaad, but then to say that it is "also a phenomenon you’ll find in every society that suffers resource shortages"? We need to be careful about how we conceptualize and converse about jugaad as it is done and talked about in India, and as something that may offer comparative theoretical implications (rather than "comparative advantage") in other places and times.

My own article spends less time on these sorts of critiques and more time on the positive project of exploring how people conceive of and actually *do* jugaad as a mode of getting things done, and what this tells us about how "corruption" is discussed and practiced and, often, legitimated. The piece is still a few months away from completion, but I hope that it will be in shape to share by the end of the summer/early autumn, and I would love comments from Angela Saini or anyone else knowledgeable on the topic.

My thanks to Ms. Saini for the article, and encouragement to continue the conversation.

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Beatrice Jauregui, PhD
Non-resident Fellow, CASI
Research Fellow, Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge