India needs to abandon the ‘Jugaad’ mindset

Pothole flagged off –  The Desi Jugaad

Branch of a tree poking out of the road in Mumbai is now widely understood to be a sign that there is a pothole underneath and to be careful around it. This is Indian Jugaad at its best, making do with whatever is available. This Jugaad mindset has traditionally had a negative connotation for being a crude workaround to problems, but it now seems to have become the hot new philosophy of innovation from the land of Yoga, Kaamasutra and the Bhagwad Gita – and equally badly understood. Maybe there is something in it for the more evolved economies which are looking for out-side-the box thinking to power their innovation, and where innovation may have become too regimented or the domain of experts only. But India needs to start its journey of innovation by abandoning this mindset outright if it wants to be taken seriously.

My core issue with Jugaad is the mindset that comes along with it, and which cant be disengaged from. It is an instinct of someone living in scarcity and in a survival mode . Historically we have never had enough of anything given our massive population – land, food, power, roads, education, Jobs, money, opportunities etc. Abundance is not in our vocabulary. India has seen remarkable growth in all areas in the last few decades, but we still holdon to the paradigm of Jugaad which is the result of this impoverished past. The impact of this thinking on India is widespread – the charmless cities, lack of aesthetics in Made in India products,  the quality of workmanship in general, the tolerance to political corruption and even our ambition as a nation.

Death of Aesthetics

Walking around in cities of more developed countries I am always struck by aesthetics of public space, of the great works of art all around  – the architecture, the city centres, the heritage buildings, street art etc. This really is evolution in the true sense where living is more than the mere act of surviving, but rather a celebration of human creativity and expression. But because such aesthetics and art are not essential for survival, the Jugaad mindset ignores it and Indian cities are reduced to being charmless functional places. Every house, every shop and every town looks the same. Public spaces are just empty spaces with no imagination applied. We are happy and grateful to merely have pot-hole free roads, and continuous power, and running water in our taps. When I first moved to Mumbai 13 years ago I got a rude shock hearing the sales pitch of a house broker – how does it matter that the house is small or has a poor view, you anyway need a place to sleep and it should be close to your place of work. Mumbai as a giant hostel is probably a reality for most Mumbaikars.

Chalta-hai Quality

Indian outlook to quality can be summarised into a ‘Chalta-hai’ attitude (its fine as long as it sort-of works), and which is closely related to Jugaad mindset. This shows up in the workmanship of people – both blue and white collared. For most, as long as the broader purpose is served there is no need to get into the details of quality of finish or quality of the experience of the service. So the walls in your house are uneven, the same bridge could have been given a more imaginative look, the customer service  is basic and consumers are treated casually, TV channels/ Bollywood take their audience for granted etc. But sab chalta-hai since even the consumers are not that demanding. I once told a vendor that I will pay him whatever he wants for a certain kind of printing job I wanted, but I wanted the output to be benchmarked to the best in the world and the reference was of something from Australia. The vendor was speechless since he had always only negotiated on cost, and not on quality. No one in India could do the job, and I had to get it done out of a vendor in Singapore (who in turn got it done out of China). It did cost me three times more than what the lower quality  version would have costed me in India, but when the consumer saw that output you could see the delight on their faces, which was the whole point of creating those marketing tools.

The poor tool kit

The frugal mindset of Jugaad makes us reluctant to invest in tools. At a construction site in India you will usually see labourers carrying bricks on their backs, rather than trolleys – as if they still need to re-invent the wheel. There wont be proper earth moving equipment, but an army of diggers. Even in whitecollered jobs, we would rather work long hours in offices struggling with outdated technologies and equipment and IT systems and an army of low skilled workforce, than spend the money on tech upgrades or on serious innovation – with the result that our efficiency is low and output it unremarkable by global standards. This attitude isnt just about adopting high end technologies, but shows even in the kind of tools we use in our everyday life, which reflect on the quality of our output. If you are a photographer, and have no knowledege or viewpoint on your camera kit, or have any pride in owning one, then I am pretty sure that you are just an average photographer.

I learnt my lesson early in my career when I turned up for an important meeting with a tattered notebook with a barely working pen but it did its job, sort-of. My boss later had a polite chat with me telling me that using that notepad and pen just showed the lack of seriousness about the meeting, and didnt reflect well on me as a professional. I soon realised that he had about 15 notebooks, each for a specific type of project he was on, some of the notebooks were 6-7 years old (these were long gestation projects). The paper had a thin square ruling on them, and had a specific texture that worked well with his fountain pen. His fountain pen always had a trademark green ink in it, so you knew that any green mark on any papers floating around in the office were his comments, he didn’t have to sign them. This method of organising his projects though notebooks was remarkably efficient in keeping track of all historical discussions on any project and always ensured that no one forgot their commitments. There was no casualness in his approach, no chalta hai attitude. He was one of the brightest executives the company had.

Think Abundance, think Quality

Living in a constant state of thrift and frugality can shrivel up ambitions and create a mindset where we forget to think big. The mere act of thinking big has its own momentum. You can create a business plan for merely sustaining your business and thus live within what you think are your circumstances, or you could make a business plan to dominate the world with your product and then acquire the resources for getting there – it is merely a shift in thought. But Indians are taught to live within their means, and have a popular saying about it too. And it is no surprise that we dont also have many world class brands for the size of our economy or the share of humanity.

To break out of the Jugaad and Chalta hai attitudes, we need to push up the expectations on quality in everything. Even our own output needs to be seen as a way to express our creativity, which is how passion expresses itself. Jugaad is a bad idea whose time is up, and needs to be buried as soon as possible. We need to learn to operate with an assumption of  abundant  resources, and with an awareness for scarcity of time – this may be the simple key to real large impact innovations from India.

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  1. tirathmuchhala says:

    Brilliant post. Reminds me of an old story about an economist visiting China. Sees a bridge under construction with 100s of workers at it, when machinery would be affordable. “Why so many workers when you could build it efficiently and better with machinery?” Answer: “Thats the problem with you economists, we are creating employment – can’t you see?!” Econ: “Ah. I thought you were building a bridge.”
    As an investor, I see quite a few companies hell bent on copying ideas rather than originating them – a fallout of this ‘jugaad is awesome’ mentality. I also think that this starts from Indian childhood, where competition is about racing the other guy and not about being awesome on an absolute (if different) scale, which then takes the young populace to engineering and then mind-numbing work places. Keep writing. Good stuff.

  2. KayEm says:

    This article so resonated with me. Chalta hai, koi baat nahi or never mind yaar do seem to be our philosophy for the reasons you mention. We are willing to accept and work around whatever is handed down to us.

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