By Swapan Dasgupta
Even the most passionate upholders of 'national pride' don't deny that the arrangements for October's Commonwealth Games are in a mess. Some feel that the chaos will persist till the closing ceremony and puncture India's pretensions of being perceived as a rising power. The optimists have a different take. Yes, they agree, the authorities entrusted with the responsibility of showcasing India have underperformed. But there is a nagging faith that at the end of the day Indian jugaad will salvage national honour. Using the imagery of Sports Minister M.S.Gill, they pray that this "Punjabi wedding" will also have a celebratory ending.
Gill may well be right. Delhi is witnessing a last-minute Botox to conceal all its ugly creases. Mountains of debris are being relocated to places foreigners don't venture; makeshift drains are being bored into newly-built roads and flyovers that had overlooked the monsoon rains; and traffic planning now includes the suggestion that car owners should consider a fortnight's leave from the Capital.
If Swaminathan Aiyar's gushing praise of jugaad (SToI, August 15) is to be believed, it is this ingenuity that marks India from monochromatic civilisations. It's an attribute that saw Indians through the bad old days of socialist austerity and mismanagement. From the humble housewife who recycled the metal foil on milk bottles for scrubbing utensils to the businessman who applied creative accountancy to skirt punitive taxation, the mind space of India was hogged by jugaad. Where the creativity of developed countries was spent on improving the system, Indian energy was expended on trying to beat a cruel and uncaring world. That is what jugaad was all about—attempts to reinvent the wheel, without the help of carpentry tools and, in some cases, either metal or wood. It was all about being compelled to study from 'guide books' and 'notes' because more worthwhile study material wasn't available in the bookshops and libraries.
That India came out of the nightmare of socialism with body and soul broadly intact and hungry for new opportunities had a lot to do with jugaad. Like with Robinson Crusoe, jugaad helped us tide over the bad times.
Unfortunately, there was a flip side to our ability to inveigle our way through adversity. Jugaad has also scarred India. It has prompted a celebration of expediency, short-cuts, and shoddiness. It has created a penchant for taking a winding course where a straight road should suffice. Once the escape route from hell, jugaad has now become an obstacle to India realising its true potential.
Take an everyday example. Go to a shop looking for a piece of equipment or a spare, the shopkeeper invariably asks: "Company made or local?" Ideally we should opt for the sturdy and the enduring but if the purchase if left to a contractor, he will buy the 'local' (which could well be Made in China) and charge for the 'company made'. It's a patch-work solution and leads to the long-term problem of inefficiency, not to mention opportunity costs.
This is precisely what has happened to many CWG projects. A road is upgraded only for the authorities to discover that there is no provision for drainage pipes or underground cables. It is then re-dug, the missing features installed and a new, makeshift road built that will endure till the last plane load of visitors to the Games leaves Delhi. This is what jugaad has come to mean in today's cash-rich India: a patchwork arrangement for the very short-term, a grey market of deceit. It is no longer frugal technology at work, the shoddiness is akin to what the inimitable Duke of Edinburgh once decried as "installed by an Indian electrician". The handiwork of jugaad is both mocking and bleeding India.
We can no longer afford to be beguiled merely by the cute and the exotic: the washing machine being used as milk churners and the old tyres that end up as shoe soles. Jugaad has come to symbolise not merely improvisation but the irregular and the slapdash. The proverbial chalta hai attitude is dangerously close to becoming the national philosophy. Merely laughing it off because "we are like this only" won't help India's quest to be taken seriously.