Why this Indian principle serenaded by Harvard heavyweights deserves to die

I first heard the word “jugaad” in the mid-1990s. “How do you intend to get the IPO application forms to Rajkot by the morning?” I asked, incredulous, at my broker’s exuberant confidence this could be accomplished.

I worked in Alliance Capital then, a global investment management firm bullish on India’s yet fledgling mutual fund industry. It was past sunset, and picking up a big chunk of forms from the printer in suburban Mumbai, then delivering it on time at the stock market and to other sub-brokers by 9am, looked far-fetched. It was a long 12-hour drive. “Don’t worry. Iska jugaad ho chuka hai” was the cool as a watermelon-on-ice response. And indeed, my broker delivered.

But I remained far from convinced that working in 24×7 emergency-like situations is smart business. Nevertheless, many Ivy-League type CEOs serenaded this operating model, citing India’s rustic survival instincts and its unique creativity under duress to pull it off. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was the popular mantra. Modern SOPs had to coexist with stickiness of local practices that were basically shortcuts. The risks were enormous, as business susceptibility to extraneous factors ought to have been controlled with a Plan B or Plan C earlier.

However, even Harvard heavyweights eulogised jugaad as Indian exceptionalism in frugal engineering, as if we should patent it. The reality is, India has romanticised a casual fix-it approach to serious problem solving. The second Covid wave shatters that suspect glorification.

No, this isn’t a dystopian nightmare we are living through, this miasma of apocalyptic doom is for real. Several unsuspecting Covid-infected Indians have not died because the dangerous vector usurped their lungs with incurable pneumonia. They died because their political leadership could not provide them with oxygen supply, ICU beds, life-saving ventilators and crucial medicines.

Of course, we must juxtapose human suffering to the braggadocio of India becoming a $5 trillion economy by 2024, to understand why we are the way we are. The poignant stories of people begging for oxygen are innumerable, and heartbreaking. They are immortalised forever in social media posts and will be a permanent reminder to us about our unpardonable failures. We have paid a price for this jugaadu attitude, inherently fatalistic and foolishly sanguine.

If India fearing a deadly virus onslaught in March 2020 resulted in the most heavy-handed lockdown ever, what led to the dramatic complacency in January 2021 when most countries faced an even deadlier second wave? Weren’t we aware of USA’s Operation Warp Speed where former president Donald Trump engaged in a partnership model with the private sector to incentivise production of vaccines and give Americans first rights? Why was SII given a measly order of 11 million vaccines in January 2021, and Pfizer forced to withdraw application?

Why were private sector hospitals not engaged from the very beginning as part of vaccine distribution? Why didn’t we place orders with other foreign vaccine manufacturers when even Canada had ordered 414 million vaccines for its meagre 38 million population? Are we under-reporting deaths in certain states? Whatever happened to the celebrated “pharmacy of the world” that it has a vaccine shortage now? The list of unanswerable questions is endless.

It was also the jugaad predisposition that led to the super-spreader Maha Kumbh Mela, while politicians defied EC proscriptions in Bengal and elsewhere and continued campaigning. In a terse order, the Madras HC observed that the EC should be booked for murder for going ahead with the five assembly elections amidst the raging pandemic. Now we have cryogenic oxygen tankers travelling hundreds of miles to meet the last mile requirement of a helpless patient. Jugaad hasn’t worked: India is gasping for breath. The “we are like that only” flippant refrain has boomeranged.

If the Supreme Court and high courts have to intervene in public interest to ensure oxygen supply, it’s a manifestation of a failed executive and a distressed polity. The citizen-state trust deficit is at a Himalayan peak. India needs bulletproof SOPs with a robust Plan B in all aspects of public interest: health, security, delivery of public services and natural disasters. We cannot handle emergencies with old-fashioned ad hoc decision-making. The post-pandemic governments of the future will need the mentality of an ambitious startup: performance driven, fully transparent, nimble footed, quick decision makers, disruptive dreamers thinking a generation ahead. The world has changed.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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