During a term as a volunteer schoolteacher in the Garo Hills of northeast India, I spent the Christmas holiday at the house of some friends who lived several miles down the road from my school. The house was an imposing brick-and-concrete bungalow that had once served as a branch of the State Bank of India, but had now been repurposed into a multi-family dwelling. On Christmas Eve, the mother of the family, Jenny, planned to bake cakes in her toaster oven and sell them to her neighbors for the holiday. The toaster oven had a large three-prong plug that would not fit into any of the house’s outlets, but Jenny’s husband Subash solved this problem by wrapping an end of one piece of wire around each of the power prongs on the toaster’s plug, and inserting the other ends of the wires straight into the outlet. (Like most outlets in India, this one had a circuit breaker built into it, so Subash could insert the wires when the outlet was not live.)

Subash's electrical improvisation.

Subash’s electrical improvisation.

This was only a temporary fix. When one of the wires started burning, Jenny sent my roommate and me to the nearby town to buy thicker wire. The new wire worked well at first, but another bout of intensive cake-baking overloaded a part of the house wiring running across the ceiling. The wiring sparked and burned out, cutting off power to half of the house. I walked to town again and bought electrical tape and more wire, which I installed to bridge the burned-out house wiring.

I suspect that any westerner who spends a significant amount of time in India—especially westerners with a technical education or inclination—will come home with a favorite story of improvisation and adaptive reuse that he or she has witnessed or even participated in. Technological improvisation is the counter-narrative to India’s continuing success as a world industrial power. In the same nation that has produced its own jet fighters, space launchers, and atom bombs, skilled individuals keep technologies in use long after they have passed out of production and would have been relegated to a scrap heap in the West. At the same time, non-specialists improvise technological solutions to everyday problems with materials readily available, as Subash did with a toaster oven, two lengths of wire, and an outlet. These improvisations may not always be safe and permanent, but they represent a degree of interpretive flexibility that does not belong to technology in the West.1

Adaptive reuse and interpretive flexibility: Decommissioned intra-city buses now serve for long-range transportation in the Garo Hills. Passengers ride on the bus wherever they can find space.

Adaptive reuse and interpretive flexibility: Decommissioned intra-city buses now serve for long-range transportation in the Garo Hills. Passengers ride on the bus wherever they can find space.

A tractor repurposed to power a road roller (photographed in Darjeeling).

A tractor repurposed to power a road roller (photographed in Darjeeling).

In Hindi, the word jugaad refers to these sorts of improvisations.2 To the modern Indian, jugaad can be a source of national pride and, sometimes, shame. According to different commentators, jugaad represents cleverness and ingenuity or an excuse for laziness and slipshod work. In the following series of blog posts, I will explore the concept of jugaad, linking it with other examples of adaptive reuse in non-western as well as western technology. Although jugaad most commonly refers to improvisation in India’s contemporary liberal market economy, I will explore the concept’s importance in early postcolonial India, broadening it to include the judicious use of non-material resources such as labor.

In the first years of independence, India’s industrialization depended of improvisation. The country was rich in raw materials and labor, but poor in developed industries. Subject to a different set of conditions than the developed western powers, India had to follow its own path to industrialization.

  1. In Social Construction of Technology theory, interpretive flexibility refers to the ability of a social group to redefine the meaning of a technological artifact. Interpretive flexibility typically exists earlier in an artifact’s existence, after which social structures form to enforce a particular interpretation. See Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker, “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other,” in The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, ed. Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 40-41. In an Indian context, passengers of public transportation employ interpretive flexibility when they ride on the bumpers and roofs of buses—an activity that is illegal in the West and has now been made impossible by the design of buses. []
  2. According to the Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary, jugaad refers to provision or a means of providing. The final character of the word is a hard flapped R, which has no direct English equivalent. The word is commonly, albeit misleadingly, transliterated jugaad. This is the most commonly used transliteration of the word in both Indian English and the western press, and therefore I have adopted it in my blog. A different transliteration, jugard, while perhaps less misleading, is also less common and I have not used it here. []