Imagine you have a problem and there’s a machine, gadget, or item that can solve this problem for you and make life a lot easier. You do your research, inquire about it, and realize that you can’t afford this gadget. This is where jugaad comes into play. A part of daily life for many families in India, jugaad can be described as an improvised, home-made solution that can substitute pretty much anything. Or to explain that more eloquently, jugaad is the gutsy art of overcoming financial constraints by improvising an efficient solution by using limited resources.
In this post, we’ll show you what is jugaad, how it works in practice, where does it originate from, and why it’s an important part of Indian culture.
Let’s start from the beginning…
What is jugaad?
The word jugaad doesn’t have an appropriate translation in English but perhaps the closest word it comes to it is “life hack”. I would add that this life hack consists of non-conventional and mostly frugal innovation that’s supposed to be a budget (poor man’s) work-around or a solution that bends the rules into one’s favor. Jugaad is a way out for poor people from developing economies from the current economic situations but a lot of developed countries can learn from this concept as well.
Hence, it’s no surprise that since recently, jugaad is also becoming a popular management technique as an acceptable form of frugal engineering and a lot of companies around the world use this practice as a way to think out of the box and reduce research and development costs.
In Hindi, the word is pronounced as jugaadh while in Punjabi and Urdu, the correct pronunciation is jugaar with a hard “r” despite the fact that the spelling might point otherwise. As for the origin of the term, it’s likely that it originates from the word Yog (a cognate of yoke), meaning joining or union. Another alternative might be the Sanskirt word “yukti”, which loosely translates to solution.
Today, if you ask people what is jugaad, most who actually know what this is will tell you that it’s a uniquely Indian attribute that appeared as a response to the combination of scarce resources that most people have at their disposal and the sclerotic state. However, the term can also be compared to the Brazilian concept Jeitinho, the Chinese Guanxi, or the West African de Brouillard.
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Examples of jugaad
The best way to understand what is jugaad is through examples. All examples involve the deployment of objects adapted to fulfill a different function than what was originally intended to fix something that’s either broken or requires more efficiency. Most of these improvised solutions are not durable, lie outside of the formal economy (sometimes even outside of the law), are on the margins of society, some might even be a reason for experiencing a culture shock in India, and all of them are the definition of “this will work for now (chalta hai)”.
One of my favorite jugaad examples was this clock I saw near Delhi’s Jhuggi Jhompri District. The clock had half of its clock face missing but instead of fixing it, someone thought it would be a good idea to write the numbers of the hours with a thick marker so the clock hands would still show the right time.
Additionally, you can see a lot of jugaad inventions from street food vendors, including street entrepreneurs using a washing machine to make lassi, Sikh men using their turbans to speak “hands-free” while riding their motorbikes, and dabbawalas (lunchbox delivery system that serves hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people at work, especially in Mumbai).
The phenomenon of jugaad also appears in people’s homes. A lot of people tie tiffin boxes to their bicycles for carrying larger items, using lighted candles underneath saucepans propped up by bottles, plastic bottles with holes used as a shower hose, wet clothes placed on a rotating fan as a replacement for an A/C, etc. The list is practically endless!
Jugaad also thrives outside the laws. A lot of creative people find loopholes in order to earn money, including politicians but that’s a topic for another day. One textbook example showcases a man from Mumbai who sells insurance to train commuters who want to travel ticketless.
He insures people for a small amount against the consequence of being caught by ticket conductors. This guy figured out that the chances of someone being caught ticketless in Mumbai’s extremely crowded trains (this is not an exaggeration) are low enough to establish a profitable venture that brings him respectable returns. Mumbai’s railway sees 7.5-8 million commuters every day.
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Why jugaad is an important part of Indian culture?
Jugaad is a key resource for progress and even mere survival in environments with slow, inefficient, and/or corrupt bureaucracies. As much as I love India, the honest truth is that India is the textbook definition of a corrupt bureaucratic system. And sure, one could argue that it’s in human nature to try to find workarounds when one has to go through burdensome rules and regulations, poor infrastructure, and unreliable services at every turn, but Indian people have taken finding solutions outside of the box to a whole other level.
You probably know that India is home to 759 millionaires (fifth in the world) but 50% of Indians live with less than $3.20 per day and a whopping 83% live with less than $5.50 per day. And for a large portion of these 83%, jugaad is a survival strategy so deeply enrooted in people’s lives that one could argue that it’s an important part of Indian culture. For many people, small-scale street entrepreneurs, and informal businesses, jugaad is often the only viable way of addressing daily problems, such as housing, livelihood, and other basic services that people in the West often take for granted.
Anthropologist Vyjayanthi Rao does a good job of linking the phenomenon of jugaad to the messiness of large Indian cities, but as she says, chaos and failure are not the cause of this but the consequence. The causes can be found at the unreliable infrastructure, weak institutions, and corrupt bureaucratic system that have been present for so long that they left a permanent mark on shaping Indian culture and the phenomenon of jugaad is only one aspect of this.
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Gaining popularity in the western world
Over the course of the last decade, a lot more journalists started covering the concept of jugaad and the number of “foreign experts” who “understand” India through their personal experience of some of the provincial stories that have the potential to be turned into hefty sociological concepts keeps increasing. These stories even reached academics who try to extrapolate more than their understanding of Indian society allows by turning the concept of jugaad into an “Indian way of innovation” that many western companies try to emulate today.
With the global economy seeing a long period of austerity, the concept of jugaad was welcomed by many boards of directors around the world who see jugaad as a clever unconventional way to quickly solve problems. Many believe that this approach can deliver outside-of-the-box solutions that are very focused on solving a specific problem.
And this is why many western managers and entrepreneurs answer the question “what is jugaad” with an “Indian way of innovating things”. As a reference point, they use examples like Tata Motors’ Nano (the world’s cheapest automobile currently priced at around $2,000 or SELCO India (a sustainable energy provider that makes solar panels for small local entrepreneurs who use the panels to charge battery-powered lights which they rent to households who live outside of the electricity grid).
Sure, all of this sounds nice when you try to use the Indian street-style innovation as a business strategy but there is a downside. Let’s address the elephant in the room.
The downside of large companies trying to implement jugaad
For many Indians at the bottom of the pyramid, the concept of jugaad is do-or-die. However, when it comes to wealthier people or corporations the concept of jugaad is used to mostly to reduce expenses and economize labor costs, often hovering around a legal grey area. Moreover, scarcity of resources is prevalent across India, a country where 83% of the population lives with less than $6 per day. On the other hand, it’s hard to even put scarcity of resources and large corporations in the same sentence.
And even if we keep these unethical or illegal parts of the concept away, let me give you something to think about. Most people who try to promote the concept of jugaad as some kind of management practice keep repeating to think outside of the box but the truth is, there’s a huge difference between the “out-of-the-box thinking” of a lasi vala from Delhi who uses an old washing machine to prepare the delicious drink that everyone loves and the out-of-the-box thinking of an engineer who works in a large multinational tech company.
The former one has reasons to adopt frugal innovation- he does not have another choice. But the latter gets paid thousands of dollars to innovate and create inventions that people pay good money for. Why should he be frugal?
In the end, even though some people try to turn jugaad into a revolutionary innovation technique, I would say that the best way to explain what is jugaad is as a humble innovation that tends to solve problems no one else but the poor people would want to solve. And India has a lot of such problems, hence, jugaad has become an important part of Indian culture. However, India doesn’t hold a monopoly on frugal innovation. It happens in other countries too but India is so densely populated that these frugal solutions are a lot more frequent and hence, a lot more noticeable.
But the bottom line is that the existence of jugaad shows nothing more than the fact that the circumstances are so bad that they force smart people to do things that most smart people in other countries, civilizations, or environments don’t have to do. Nothing more, nothing less.
How did you like this article? Did it help you understand what is jugaad better? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
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