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India's oldest hack may be its biggest obstacle on the road to world power

By Dean NelsonA few weeks ago I was invited to become a juror on ‘The Great Indian Jugaad Challenge,’ a celebration of ‘lateral thinking’ and ‘frugal innovation’, but I am in a pachranga pickle over whether to accept. After several years of researching its impact on the Indian landscape for my book, Jugaad Yatra — Exploring the Indian Art of Problem Solving, I fear it has got under India’s skin and become a badge of identity that keeps it from becoming the world leader it could be.I saw many examples of inspiring jugaad solutions on my journey — from homemade air conditions and water coolers bring summer comfort to poor villagers to the story of a cycle rickshawala who invented a fruit-processor which lifted him and his fellow villagers out of poverty. They were stories of hope from people who found rough, creative solutions to ease their lives using the materials they had in hand.Some of these inventions have transformed lives — the Jaipur Foot which allows amputees to walk and work once again, a wind-powered pump which allows poor farmers to irrigate that their fields, cheap sanitary towels which allow women and teenage girls to resume their normal lives.And some of them have become a viral source of social media hilarity — the crazy things Indians do to ‘get shit done no matter what’ — often under the hashtag #JugaadNation. Another one of these did the rounds last week: A mobile ‘desi water park’ in which a group of apparently Punjabi men, stripped to their underwear, frolicked in a farm trailer lined with plastic sheeting and filled with water. It became a wave machine as the tractor drove across a bumpy field. These clips and images showcase an Indian genius for rough, improvised solutions in the face of great hardship and scarcity and draw on something many Indians recognize as part of their own experience or family history.Kamal Nath, the veteran Congress leader, described it well in his book India’s Century: The Age of Entrepreneurship when he described jugaad as a “survival skill for most Indians” which had emerged during Nehru’s ‘shortage economy’ in the early years of Independence.“Every obstacle became an opportunity, a showcase for ingenuity... I sometimes wonder whether jugaad, a form of scientific innovation, represents a suppressed Indian inventive gene,” he wrote.Some writers have gone further and packaged this pride as a management philosophy which can not only lift India out of poverty but lead lumbering Western corporates away from rigid thinking and to a new future of ‘breakthrough growth.’They overlook the darker side of jugaad-thinking I saw on my yatra and the havoc it has wreaked across India’s social and economic landscape. The same lateral thinking and circumvention which bypasses obstacles to help poor villagers, is also deployed by corrupt industrialists, officials, doctors, police officers, judges and politicians to subvert rules and flout laws made to protect people and improve civic life.Rivers are polluted with industrial waste or illegally mined for sand under the government’s nose. Medical qualifications are awarded for payment, fake colleges are licensed by corrupt officials. Landlords encroach urban space while chai-pani police and enriched patwaris waris bank the rewards of their ‘creative thinking.’For businesses looking at India as a potential investment destination, this genius for circumvention is a real concern and one I’m often asked about as a business intelligence consultant advising foreign firms on the risks of operating in India.The threat was highlighted in the downfall of Ranbaxy, once one of the world’s leading producers of generic medicines. In 2013, Ranbaxy was fined $500 million after pleading guilty to US felony charges that it had adulterated drugs and misled officials over inaccurate test results. Questions were raised over the expiry dates of some of its medicines.There is no scope for jugaad circumvention in the manufacture of medicines — making them to the highest standards of manufacturing excellence lence is a matter of life and death: some of the world’s leading heart doctors have raised concerns over the reliability of Indian generic heart failure drugs.But even here some believe India can cut corners and that rough approximations can help the poor. Professor Anil Gupta, one of India’s greatest champions of frugal innovation, told me the Western medicine makes a fetish of excellence and that many Indians would have a useful solution with a drug which was only 70% effective if it was available at the right price. "Nature will take care of the rest he said. Who would want to be in that doomed 30%? Today, India needs to create eight million new jobs per year for its soaring working population and for that it needs foreign investment — companies who believe they can successfully Make in India to the highest global standards. Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, clearly sees this. When India’s space scientists put their Mangalyaan satellite into the orbit of Mars — its greatest scientific triumph — he seized on their success as a lesson for all Indians: “Our space programme has been an example of achievement, which inspires the rest of us to aspire to excellence ourselves,” he said.A few days after my invite to celebrate jugaad thinking, Indian industrialist Anand Mahindra posted a video clip of a jugaad street sweeping device. Indians should never settle for jugaad, they should aim for brilliant, but there should be a museum for these fascinating devices, he said.He’s right. India’s millennials are looking for a Mangalyaan future in which India leads the world and the jugaad products of a frugal past are where they belong — in museum cases.(The writer is author of Jugaad Yatra)

Source: ET

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