Yale anthropologist James C. Scott has argued that large-scale modernist projects to transform nature and human society—from scientific forestry to Soviet collectivization—have failed because they lack a special characteristic known as metis. In his 1998 book Seeing Like a State, Scott defined metis as knowledge from practical experience; it is folk knowledge or a knack.1

Small-scale jugaad can be thought of as a form of metis. Schools do not teach jugaad; it can only be learned from a mentor or through trial-and-error. By contrast, a planned economy such as Soviet Russia’s or Nehruvian India’s lacks metis. According to Scott, when central governments attempt to control economies, they fail because they lack adequate knowledge of specific local conditions.

An example of modernist planning gone awry in India is the planned capital of Punjab, Chandigarh. Designed by modernist architect Le Corbusier, the city was built to a grid plan on a colossal scale. Unlike in most other Indian cities, Chandigarh’s buildings are spaced widely, leaving large areas of empty, wasted space. The colossal, dehumanizing scale of the city discourages the busy street scenes characteristic of other Indian cities. The Penguin Guide to the Monuments of India says that Chandigarh “makes a rather sorry comparison with the spectacular civic grandeur of New Delhi…”2

But not even Chandigarh was without its hidden narrative of improvisation and adaptation. Nek Chand, a state roads inspector, secretly built a sculpture garden on a disused, twelve-acre plot of government land. Over a period of twelve years, Chand built 20,000 sculptures of wasted materials such as toilet porcelain and glass. When the government discovered Chand’s secret garden, they tried to remove the sculptures. Chand and his supporters prevailed over the government, and the Rock Garden, as it is now called, is a popular tourist destination in Chandigarh.3

  1. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 6. []
  2. Philip Davies, Islamic, Rajput, European, vol. 2 of The Penguin Guide to the Monuments of India (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 116; Scott, Seeing Like a State, 130-2. []
  3. Kevin Lynch and Michael Southworth, Wasting Away (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990), 21, 23; Takeo Kamiya, The Guide to the Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent, ed. Annabel Lopez and Bevinda Collaco, trans. Geetha Parameswaran (Bardez, Goa: Architecture Autonomous, 2004), 43. []