From ancient scriptures and Mahabharata to mars mission, why India works on jugaad
The word isn’t just a simple noun but a popular adjective too.
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Joo-gaard (retroflex r)
Hindi feminine noun. Colloquial meaning a quick fix, improvised or home-made solution, a frugal innovation, a temporary hack, botch job, bypass, by any means necessary, corruption. Provision, means of providing. To gather together the necessary means to do something.
2014: A Space Oddity
Wednesday, September 24, 2014, was arguably one of the greatest days in India’s long and rich history. Scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had fired a rocket to Mars and put their Mangalyaan spacecraft into its orbit.
The seventh-largest economy in the world and projected to be the fifth largest (overtaking Britain and France by the end of 2018), India was finally coming into its own. For too many years its image had been stereotyped by poverty, its popular Bollywood song and dance films and Mahatma Gandhi, the patron saint of non-violent protest and father of modern, independent India. Now, suddenly, Mangalyaan’s success compelled the world to look afresh at India. It was not only an interplanetary pioneer, one of only four nations to have completed a mission to Mars, it was the only one to succeed at its first attempt. It was a moment of bursting national pride and there were scenes of jubilation at ISRO’s mission control where Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined its scientists to celebrate their extraordinary success and the manner in which they had achieved it.
Its great achievement, however, wasn’t to boldly go where no mission had gone before but to establish itself as the undisputed leader in shoestring space travel. It had cost just $74 million, almost one-tenth of the $671 million spent by the rival American MAVEN mission, and less than the production budget of Gravity, the Oscar-winning Hollywood space thriller starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, the Indian prime minister had noted. How did India do that? The secret of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), according to its scientists, was in its reliance on “jugaad”—a wide-ranging term that refers to inspiring, frugal inventions, ingenious innovations which defy conventional wisdom; but also to corruption, a ruse to beat the system and to flout or bypass the rules.
The word is also used to refer to hybrid trikes popular on Indian roads: the wheel, steering column and frame of an old Enfield Bullet motorbike welded to a home-made chassis attached to a carriage or trailer, often powered by a water pump motor. The variations are infinite but all assembled from assorted scrap powered by something intended for a different purpose altogether. This original jugaad was made possible when the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi distributed cheap pumps to poor farmers to boost food production. But on holidays they were used as engines to power a new kind of vehicle to ferry worshippers to temples and families to weddings.
A jugaad solution is usually rough, quick and improvised, relying on immediately available resources.
In India, the word isn’t just a simple noun but a popular adjective too: a jugaad solution is usually rough, quick and improvised, relying on immediately available, discarded or broken materials no longer good for their original use. A leaking car radiator repaired by a roadside mechanic with bubble gum, a coat-hanger radio aerial, canvas tarpaulins which billow up to double the loads of top-heavy haulage trucks, the adapted rear wheel stands and chains which turn boneshaker bicycles into knife sharpeners.
And from noun and adjective, it has risen to verb status. To do some jugaad is to find a way around a problem by any means necessary, from inspired improvisation to the payment of a bribe. A candidate who has just failed his driving test might plead with his examiner: “Bhai saab, kuch jugaad kar do?” (Sir, please, do some jugaad for me?) A thousand rupees might be what it costs to pass without taking the test or for the examiner to find another way of looking at it. It might be the factory owner’s resort when the government inspector notices he is pumping illegal chemical waste effluents into a river. It might be the inspector’s solution to make it a monthly payment.
Jugaad Yatra, by Dean Nelson; Aleph Book Company
Jugaad, then, describes funny, inspiring, frugal inventions, instant innovations, but can also refer to corruption, bending the rules and beating the system. In all its uses there is an element of circumvention, of “bypassing” a problem. It can be good, bad, helpful or dangerous. So what part could this rough and ready approach have played in the most advanced, demanding rocket science of India’s triumphant mission to Mars? The scientists at ISRO had turned to jugaad when they attempted what appeared to be Mission Impossible: to fire a spacecraft to Mars on a rocket which did not have the conventional power to get there and to build it in three years using local materials and personnel for less than the cost of a studio-based space movie. Their American counterparts at NASA would, almost certainly, have shaken their heads and said it just could not be done without a bigger, better and costlier rocket. Our Indian heroes, however, simply got to work and made do with the materials they had.
Instead of creating a purpose-built rocket powerful enough to reach the red planet, they dusted down their own Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), designed more than twenty years earlier to put small satellites in orbit above the Earth. To keep costs low, they ditched NASA’s iterative model where each component and stage is tested before the next begins, and built a rocket using cobbled together parts from earlier models, all in one go. What they could not do, for all their ingenuity, was supercharge a rocket made to launch Earth satellites into one that could carry its payload all the way to Mars. Conventional thinking was a black hole.
Their solution was to think of a way to bypass the problem they couldn’t crack to one they could. So instead of pointing their patchwork rocket at Mars, they first had it loop the Earth for a month to build momentum. By keeping it in an increasing elliptical orbit and firing its burners intermittently, the scientists simply worked around its obvious shortcomings, overcame its power deficit and set their rocket on a circuitous flight to glory. They had launched Mangalyaan in much the same way David slew Goliath — a cosmic slingshot method. They had cut corners, made do with recycled parts, rejected conventional wisdom and flown by the seat of their pants.
It could so easily have failed. The burners had not initially succeeded in raising the rocket’s orbit to the correct height and extra blasts were ordered in those anxious moments when the mission hovered between success and failure. ISRO’s scientists held their nerve and at the eleventh hour, the burners finally lifted the rocket to the required trajectory, stone shot from sling and the rest is space history.
Alok Chatterjee, a former ISRO scientist working with NASA who liaised between the two space agencies, paid tribute to the part jugaad had played in the mission’s success and defined it as the “Indian approach of getting the maximum out of spending the least amount of resources, including time.”
“And while jugaad cannot defy the laws of physics in getting a complex space mission like MOM accomplished, it is definitely a time-tested approach that has proved applicable to processes for achieving the mission’s accelerated goals,” he told the American management consultant Karine Schomer.
It was a higher tech, interplanetary equivalent of a home-made jugaad trike winning the Monaco Grand Prix and in victory Mangalyaan had not only waved the nation’s tricolour across the heavens, it had fired a very Indian way of thinking into outer space.
It gave a huge boost to national confidence and made possible another giant step just over two years later, in February 2017, when ISRO launched 104 satellites from a single rocket to set a new world record.
Mangalyaan’s mission to Mars was India’s “Man on the Moon” moment, a source of deep pride and joy for a nation that has suffered more than its fair share of hardship. So it was all the more intriguing that at its moment of greatest triumph observers chose to celebrate the role jugaad thinking had played in it. Not least because Indians themselves are fiercely divided on whether jugaad is a source of pride or shame—a competitive advantage and entrepreneurial force behind the country’s rise or a byword for cheap, shoddy products, a cause of chaos and enduring underachievement. The dispute touches on essential questions of how Indians see themselves, their skills, traits and achievements as a nation, their hopes, aspirations and potential as also — how they want the world to think about their country.
Where does this jugaad — good and bad — come from? How did it weave itself into Bharatbala’s national narrative and become not only a means of survival in chaos but the secret of India’s global business success and cosmic conquest?
There isn’t a single, compelling answer but there are numerous hints and clues. Many of them are from India’s ancient scriptures and spiritual epics and the best of them focuses on the story of Lord Ganesha, the universally loved, elephant-headed remover of obstacles and God of new beginnings.
His story, one of many of how Lord Ganesha came by his elephant head, is a “famous buddhi” or wisdom told to Indian children to teach flexibility and creativity. Swami Nikhilananda of the Chinmaya Mission told me: Parvati had created him from her own skin to keep her company while her consort, Lord Shiva, was away. When he returned Shiva mistook Ganesha for an intruder and beheaded him. When he saw Parvati’s grief, he vowed to bring him back to life. “He sent his man and told him any animal, any person you find, you cut the head of that person and you bring [it to me]. So they went in search and found an elephant, cut the head of the elephant and it was attached to his [Ganesha’s] body. I find this as a very good example of jugaad only,” he explained.
The origins of frugal jugaad thinking are also to be found in Lord Krishna’s revelation in the Bhagavad Gita that he lives in every object and being, said Swami Nikhilananda. Divinity is in every broken cup, discarded tyre and rusted chassis — they retain their value and potential.
Jugaad refers to funny, inspiring, frugal inventions
“Still they can serve us. You are using a pen, that pen is serving a purpose, it is inbuilt in me that I should revere it. And just because it is a little loose here and there, I do not throw it out, I’ll repair it and continue using it. Of course in these times we are changing it, but it is there in our culture,” he said, “everyone is jugaading.”
Some believe India’s ancient scriptures and texts may also hold the secrets of jugaad’s darker side — the corner-cutting, circumvention of ethics, rules and laws, bribery and corruption which often overshadow the best of India.
One particular passage from the Mahabharata, which tells the story of the epic battle for power between two sides of a royal family and the eternal fight all of us face to do the right thing, is often cited as a key reference. Attaining its present form around 400 ce, the epic focuses on the rift between the avaricious Kauravas whose crown prince Duryodhana cheats his righteous Pandava cousins, led by “dharma prince” Yudhisthira, of their inheritance. When the two sides finally clash at Kurukshetra, the Pandavas find they are no match for the Kaurava general, Drona, whose battlefield prowess threatens to swiftly annihilate them. Lord Krishna urges Yudhisthira to “stop his fighting by any means possible” — to fool him into believing his son Aswathama has been killed and strike him as he reels in shock. An elephant, which shared his son’s name is then slain and when rumours reached Drona that “Aswathama” is dead, he asks Yudhisthira, known to have never uttered a lie, if it is true.
An elephant's head was cut, and it was attached to Ganesha’s body
“Yes it is true,” Yudhisthira replies, but adds, in a whisper: “an elephant called Aswathama!” Drona is beheaded as he slumps in grief. Yudhisthira, the righteous “dharma prince”, wins the war but goes to hell for a short period for his deceit, while his defeated Kaurava cousin rises to heaven.
Author Amish Tripathi, whose Shiva Trilogy novels have sold more than 2.5 million copies, was nine when he first heard the epic. He couldn’t understand why the good guys were plunged into hell. His parents explained that Indian epics are meant to provoke deep questions rather than offer simple answers.
“Through the questions that emerge you will find answers. And you will find philosophies that will make sense to you...your answers can be different from my answers, that’s also okay because you’re different from me,” Tripathi explained.
This absence of prescriptive answers has spawned “a self-reliant, creative, independent culture” in which people solve their own problems rather than wait for gods, rulers or others to offer one.
The problem, he conceded, is moral relativism, where right and wrong are matters of personal conscience and interest.
As the writer, Gurcharan Das, said in his study of the Mahabharata, The Difficulty of Being Good, if God is not the final arbiter of good behaviour, where does that leave the individual? They are left alone to “decide how best to order their lives. Given the plurality of authorities, one has to rely on oneself.”
Some have suggested that clues to the roots of bad jugaad governance could be traced to the Arthashastra, the ancient treatise on statecraft by Chanakya who guided Chandragupta Maurya to create an empire which stretched from Bengal in the east to Afghanistan in the west. The text, written around 2,000 years ago, is concerned with perpetuating the rule of the king and warding off threats to his power via different means. Among other things, it describes in detail the ways in which civil servants may cheat the public and how the king may fleece his people when his coffers are low. Its suggestions include the deployment of prostitutes and spies to steal money from businessmen to the building of fake temples to divert donations into the treasury.
Some believe India’s caste divisions have helped create the context in which rough jugaad solutions thrived while its early advantage in scientific discovery was squandered. The roads plied by homemade junkyard trikes today were once walked upon by global pioneers of science. Aryabhata named the first ten decimal places, the basis of our modern digital revolution, employed the value of pi and grasped vital aspects of the solar system around 1,500 years ago. Sushruta carried out surgeries like rhinoplasty and lithotomy in around 600 bce, while the Indus Valley Civilisation gave the world advanced urban planning and public sanitation at Mohenjo-Daro, Sindh, more than 4,000 years ago. The celebrated Bengali chemist, Sir Prafulla Chandra Ray, believed the march of Indian science was hobbled by restrictions on what practical actions high-caste Brahmins could do and their relationships with lower-caste artisans and craftsmen who could build on their ideas. Dissecting human cadavers, for example, was an essential element of medical progress, but Brahmins were forbidden from wielding the lancet. Anatomy and surgery became “lost sciences” while India’s artisans were “left very much to themselves and guided solely by their mother wit and sound common sense,” he wrote.
To do some jugaad is to find a way around a problem by any means necessary
His argument begs the question: Without these divisions could India’s space programme have ticked off Mars long before its American rivals? Would its scientists and innovators now be leading the world? In her essay on jugaad thinking in India’s Mars mission, management consultant Karine Schomer suggested caste was only one possible factor and that Mughal invasion and British colonial rule had been significant causes too. A legacy of uncertainty caused by conquest and arbitrary government had created a jugaad “habit of mind” which “emphasises ad hoc improvisation and flexibility as a way of getting things done...without necessarily being concerned about long-term sustainability or systemic impacts,” she wrote. “Under feudalism, colonialism and — later on — the “bureaucracy Raj” of the first forty years of independent India, the ability to work around the system, to improvise and to circumvent the rules, was often required for any kind of success,” she explained.
Bestselling author and politician Shashi Tharoor has argued in his book, An Era of Darkness, that India was in fact leading the world until its economy was sabotaged by British colonial rule. Its handloom weavers made the world’s finest muslins until the British “smashed their thumbs, broke their looms, imposed tariffs and duties on their cloth and products and started taking the raw materials from India and shipping back manufactured cloth,” he wrote. He further pointed out in the book that India’s share of world trade slumped from 23 per cent at the beginning of the raj to below 4 per cent at independence in 1947.
The political freedom India later discovered was bound by an extreme poverty compounded by Partition — millions of refugees from East and West Pakistan who lost everything in the exodus and had to rebuild their lives from scratch, broken supply chains, truncated roads and rail tracks.
The conditions required frugality and rewarded affordable innovation. Whatever its origins, India’s social, legal, scientific and political landscape is strewn with good and bad, heartening and self-defeating examples of jugaad thinking. It may not be in India’s DNA, as some believe, but it has got under its skin—it is a recognisably Indian phenomenon and an underappreciated factor in some of the best and worst aspects of Indian life.
(Excerpted with the permission of the Aleph Book Company from Jugaad Yatra, by Dean Nelson)