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A 'Jugaad' bathroom

Monday Morning Motivation: Jugaad – the art of frugal innovation

A 'Jugaad' bathroom

When the flight attendant overloads the airplane cabin with air fresher, so much so that it chokes you, you, know you are landing in India. As you step out of the airport, the smell, the people, the animals and the auto-rickshaws politely drill one common message into your sophisticated head: “Welcome to India, therefore … Please Kindly Adjust.”

Adjustment is a way of life in India. Systems are broken and they do not, for the most part, get fixed. Instead, ingenious attempts are made to circumvent the broken system, for two reasons: the painful ordeal of battling government bureaucracy, and the frugalness that is in the DNA of most Indians. Everyone is scrambling to live the best possible life with the least possible resources. Life seems like a constant compromise.

Interestingly, this situation has resulted in a new class of innovation – a class not led by scientists using expensive resources, but one led by every housewife, street hawker, farmer, transporter or trader. Here innovation is led by creativity, common sense and, more importantly, the need to survive. There is even a colloquial name for this class of innovation for adjustment – Jugaad. Jugaad means a workaround solution with limited resources. Management gurus now call this ‘frugal innovation.’

Jugaad is seen in every aspect of life here. Last week, I was chugging along a dusty road complaining about the humid heat in Mumbai, when I observed a little girl on her way to school. She was maybe nine or ten years old, and in addition to carrying her younger brother on the back seat of her bicycle, she was balancing brutally heavy school bags and lunch boxes while simultaneously battling rickshaw drivers and pedestrians on the street. The girl had constructed a secure but easily detachable belt to the backseat to hold her brother, in addition to a small adjustable ‘rear view’ mirror to keep an eye on the child. On one hand, it is painful to see a little girl burdened with such responsibilities. But on the other hand, it is refreshing to see how cleverly she had managed to use scare resources to meet that responsibility with a smiling face. If necessity is the mother of invention, then India must be the mother of necessity.

India is a land for marriages and this tribal village in rural Tamil Nadu is no exception. Lack of electricity, water or roads does not stop the fun. The village shares a 'jugaad' diesel generator specifically for music during marriages and functions!

The power of Jugaad is amplified in the rural areas where resources are scarcer and the needs more pressing. Recently, I was reading about how a farmer in a drought-affected rural area of Gujarat converted his old motorcycle into a tractor. The low cost innovation idea caught on to many other farmers in the village who realized that the cost-benefit is better than using two cows to drag a plow. Many such innovations have cropped up in rural India including pesticide sprayer bicycles, mud cooled refrigerators and even a device for women that eases the burden of carrying water atop their heads for long distances. The concept of Jugaad is finding its way into large-scale industries in India as well. When I worked on the Tata Nano – the world’s most affordable car produced by industry giant Tata Motors — some of the most brilliant ideas in cost reduction were inspired by studying the mindset of two wheeler users in India who carry a family of three or four on a single motorbike.

'Jugaad' dinnerware in the form of banana leaves

Despite the positives, I am still wary of our “Please Kindly Adjust” attitude. I noticed how all these innovations are in some way a result of the need to circumvent the core issue of lack of access to basic amenities like electricity, water, transportation and agricultural tools. With due respect to Jugaad, I often wonder if circumventing the problem of access to basic amenities with stray examples of ingenious innovation is the answer to sustainable development in India. I believe we cannot lose focus on the core issues of food, water, health and hygiene, which are fundamental to development. We will need to build institutional mechanisms to innovate more systematically, while keeping our tradition of frugality.

The art of Jugaad is well placed for an India where there is so much hardship in securing daily needs for so many. The overwhelming force of life here that drives people to create their own solutions to intractable problems is inspiring. This is evidence of the resiliency of the human spirit, and if there is anywhere that can come up with its own innovative solutions, it is India. What will be truly ingenious is to see is how we leverage our frugal innovation strength to attack core issues and not circumvent them.

A second-hand solar panel charges an old car battery, which can charge a couple of mobile phones and entertainment in the form of the CD player lying next to it.

Cherian is an Acumen Fund Global Fellow working in Mumbai, India with Dial 1298 for Ambulance, which focuses on providing affordable emergency medical response services. Cherian is from India and has a business consulting background in healthcare and retail. He has also developed innovative low cost solutions for emerging markets with the Tata Group in India. Cherian holds a M.S. in Industrial Engineering with a focus on humanitarian applications from Georgia Institute of Technology and a B.E. in Mechanical Engineering from College of Engineering Pune.

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