The Jugaad Country

16 November, 2009

Continuing with the theme of discovering India, I, time and time again, laugh through near death experiences, called the Indian roads. I laugh because crying is not an option. Every day in India reinforces two significant themes for me.

1) God does exist and,

2) Miracles do happen.

It’s through a combination of those two that the country continues to make progress in spite of the chaos and inefficiencies. I will try and summarize some of the key findings, typically during my travels, what I believe can only happen in India. Here is the one that I think really captures the essence of business and the enterprising spirit in India.

The concept called Jugaad. For many Indians, especially from the north, this is a commonly-used term. Jugaad is the summation of what makes India tick – enterprising, resourceful, and making things work to address what needs to be done within the constrained resources.

Many accuse Indians of taking the concept of Jugaad to the extreme and simply over-promising (it will be done) due perhaps to the firm belief that through Jugaad, someone will make “it” happen.

Recently, I happened to be in Roorkie for an Attero Board meeting. Due to logistics issues, this time my co-Board member and I decided to drive rather than take the train.

We also happened to have Michael Schumacher as the driver (Vijay Mallya, are you there? There is a Formula 1 driver in UP named Uttam looking to be discovered), which didn’t help.  As we drove at 120 km/hour down a one lane but two-way road, both my fellow board member and I were more than a little nervous. When we asked the driver to slow down a bit, he responded simply by saying “sir, you will be late” and “just close your eyes”, as he turned the side mirror of the Innova inward to get about three more inches of space to pass the oncoming traffic.

After a while, we stopped at an intersection in Uttarakhand, and the experience was a bit surreal. The road was originally fairly wide, but due to encroachment by shopkeepers and residents, there wasn’t much room left for normal traffic. That’s also when the definition of “normal traffic” in the Indian context presented itself. At that intersection, we noticed eight different animals and about ten different modes of transportation sharing that one lane.

What really grabbed my attention was a brand new vehicle that I had never seen before. Upon further investigation I was told the vehicle itself is called “Jugaad”. The vehicle was a stretch auto-rickshaw running on what looked like a lawnmower engine (actually it’s a water pump set converted into an engine), but capable of carrying about 50 people and with a typical travel speed of 10-15 km/hour. It’s not a creation of Ratan Tata, Anand Mahindra or Suzuki. It has no licence plate and is definitely not registered with the RTO.

But Jugaad is a home (backyard) built people mover using the bare necessary parts but serving a real need (how else do you get lots of people transported especially where local public transportation doesn’t exist). Interestingly enough, this same vehicle had two mirrors sticking up from its hood – one facing backward for obvious reasons and one facing forward, for a not so obvious reason. The vehicle has no headlights, so it uses the front facing mirror as a reflective surface to use the oncoming traffic’s high beam to create its own de facto headlight (this is the premium version of Jugaad).  The vehicle doesn’t have any sort of certification or have impressive performance specs, but it does the job of hauling lots of people fairly reliably from point A to point B. And that folks is the definition of jugaad, which means “it may not look pretty, but you use innovation and the resources you have to get the job done”.

Let me give yet another terrifying example a few years earlier that also typifies Jugaad in India. In 2005, I came to India for my brother- in-law’s wedding. It was a hectic trip (at that time, my three kids were 5, 2, and 3 months old) and there was one especially late night when we found ourselves in the midst of a very uniquely Indian experience. It was around 1 am. There were 11 of us travelling by Qualis (imagine 5 kids under the age of 6, my wife, my sister- in-law and my in-laws).

I was sleeping in the front seat with my 2-year-old on my lap with the seat belt on when suddenly the car came to a screeching halt. I woke up only to find that the car engine was on fire. Panicked, I opened the door and started taking the kids out. The kids were crying, the mothers were screaming and crying simultaneously. My in-laws with two six-year-old kids were in the back seats of the Qualis. The trunk was locked so I had to get the driver to open the trunk first and then try and douse the flames.  With all the commotion, a couple of good Samaritans pulled over to try and help.

A truck pulled up next to us that had a fire extinguisher and helped put the fire out; the fire department showed up within 2-3 minutes as did police. I was absolutely amazed by that. In the US, it would have taken longer for emergency services to reach the scene. I was told later that this was near Safdurjung Hospital and that there was a fire engine on duty there. It also helped that it was the middle of the night with little traffic.  Regardless, the response was pleasantly surprising.   It was late and freezing (December time in Delhi) and no way for us to get to Faridabad (about 50 km away) which was our eventual destination. After about 10 minutes, our driver simply came over to me and said, “aao baitho (come sit)”. I looked at him in disbelief. To us, it was traumatic; to him, it was routine. There was no way that I was going to put my family at risk heading to Faridabad in a burnt up Qualis.

We arranged for a taxi, and the Qualis simply followed us back to Faridabad, with burnt out headlights and charred bonnet. We got back to Faridabad around 2:30 am. The next morning, to our complete astonishment, the driver was at our doorstep at 9 am indicating the Qualis was completely fixed and as good as new. We all ran outside and sure enough, it was humming without any sign that it was actually on fire 7-8 hours earlier. There was a short circuit in the headlights that had caused the fire. The driver had contacted a mechanic who worked through the night, replaced the headlights, the charred metal parts, bonnet cover and the cabling/wiring using some authentic but mostly make-shift parts.

Although hesitant, we decided we would give the Qualis a shot. We continued to use that same Qualis through Delhi and Punjab over the next several days without incident. That’s when I first heard the term “jugaad”. As I sat in the Qualis that morning after the incident, I thought to myself…what would have happened in a similar circumstance in the US. My guess is that after the police reports, and insurance paperwork, it would have taken at least 2-3 weeks to get the car fixed and usable. Perhaps that’s the difference between a so-called developing and developed country. In a developing country, one simply “does” because “not doing it or waiting” is simply not an option. That’s probably why the “ho jaiga (it will be done)” attitude is so prevalent in India, because one knows that whatever the issue, one will figure out a way to address it, although the exact mechanism and timeline may be very unorthodox and unpredictable.

So, whether it’s Jugaad the vehicle, or the mindset and enterprising nature that one calls Jugaad, it is something that is uniquely Indian and one that we should cherish rather than blame, which is often the case.


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The Jugaad Country

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