Business, Economics and Jobs

India: Celebrating failure instead of solving problems


Celebrating failure? India often praises its people and business leaders for their spirit of "jugaad" (or jerry-rigging). But the work-arounds only exist because of the total breakdown of effective governance.



India's reliance on stopgap, jerry-built measures, or "jugaad," is far from the so-called "frugal revolution" that Kerala member of parliament Shashi Tharoor calls it in an editorial for the Globe and Mail. It's ingenuity borne out of the state's inability to provide a functioning legal system or the real economic progress needed for its people to buy or build high-quality products. And lauding it is just one more way that India celebrates failure.

Indians are natural leaders in frugal innovation, imbued as they are with the jugaad system of developing makeshift but workable solutions from limited resources. Jugaad essentially conveys a way of life, a worldview that embodies the quality of making do with what you have to meet your needs, writes Tharoor.

But jugaad is not about pirating products or making cheap imitations of global brands. It is about innovation – finding inexpensive solutions, often improvised on the fly, within the constraints of a resource-starved developing country full of poor people. An Indian villager constructs a makeshift vehicle to transport his livestock and goods by rigging a wooden cart with an irrigation hand pump that serves as an engine. That’s jugaad.

To some extent, of course, that's true. One has to admire Indians' ability to develop work-arounds to solve their problems, and some of the same energy is behind the bottom-of-the-pyramid products that inspired Tharoor's essay (e.g.  the GE MAC 400, a hand-held electrocardiogram device that costs $800 and the Tata Swachh, a $24 water purifier that's much cheaper than other available models).

But it rubs me the wrong way that a politician, of all people, is singing the praises of jugaad. The reason that Indians have to rely on jerry-built alternatives is that they can't afford the real thing. And the reason that they can't afford the real thing is that their political system has completely failed them.

It's like the endless articles that celebrate Indian entrepreneurs -- particularly in IT -- for their ability to subvert or avoid legal restrictions that would otherwise paralyze their business.  On the one hand, it's a kind of celebration of the government's failure to enforce its much-needed laws concerning environmental protection, safety in the workplace, and so forth. And on the other, it's an excuse for nobody to bother too much about changing other policies that actually prevent business from succeeding.

So, too, for the innovations that the poor have developed -- a bicycle-driven water pump or what have you. What is this but an excuse for the government to continue to fail to provide clean running water to its people?

In my mind, the "spirit of jugaad" is just a new spin on another phrase that folks used to run down India, "chalta hai" (it walks).  Essentially used to mean, "it's good enough," people would say chalta hai when they'd managed some half-baked solution to a problem, which wasn't satisfactory at all, but they were (they thought) incapable of doing better.

Witness the electrical outlets in my apartment.  They work, at least for a little while.  But I've had to replace every single one of them at least two or three times over the four years that I've lived in the place. Ditto for the capacitors in my ceiling fans. 

Chalta hai? I suppose so. But not the way they're intended.