Technology, History, and Place

Tag: found art

Improvising in a Planned Economy

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. []

The Mystique of Jugaad

After the liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991, foreign capital began to pour into India. The international corporations that set up shop in India found an already well-developed indigenous technology sector—thanks in no small part to previous governments’ expulsion of foreign firms such as IBM. After 1991, the Indian economy began to grow quickly, attracting the attention of the western press.1 The causes and especially the consequences of India’s growth have been hotly debated. In recent years, formal news outlets and informal blogs, published in both India and the West, have identified jugaad as an important factor in India’s economic success.

An early appearance of the word jugaad in a western publication referred to a particular form of technological improvisation: the jugaad car, also called simply jugaad. In a 1995 Wall Street Journal article, Barun Mitra reported from Gohana, Haryana (a town fifty miles northwest of Delhi) that an informal industry had developed to build motor vehicles from repurposed parts. Jugaads are cobbled together from components such as a 10-hp diesel pump motor, wheels, and a wooden plank for a seat. They typically have no electronics, no headlights, no shocks—and often no brakes. To stop, the driver typically just switches off the engine. Despite obvious shortcomings in safety, economic factors make jugaads appealing for rural transportation, because they remain considerably cheaper than the cheapest cars produced by formal industry.2

More recently, jugaad has been hotly discussed in the western press in the broader sense of improvisation. As Anand Giridharadas noted in a 2010 report, jugaad has become a “management fad.”3 Responding to this fad, numerous journalists and bloggers have found creative and colorful ways to describe and define the term. To Peter Wilson, jugaad means “a quiet but relentless ‘can-do’ determination within Indian culture.”4 Anuj Chopra defines the jugaad in terms of resources: it is “a colloquial term used to describe an idiosyncratic solution, cobbled together in a resource constrained environment, to fix a vexing problem.”5 More poetically, American expat blogger Dave Prager describes jugaad as “ingenuity in the face of adversity.”6

Jugaad can refer to improvisation of technological systems as well as technological artifacts. An example of this is Mumbai’s celebrated dabbawallas—delivery men who shuttle home-cooked meals from offices to workplaces. Traveling by foot, bicycle, or public transportation, the five thousand dabbawallas together deliver 200,000 meals every day. Western journalists writing about the dabbawallas claim that they are famously reliable, making a mistake only once every 16 million deliveries.7

In India, found art or garbage art is also referred to as jugaad. In the same way that technological jugaad uses materials for a mechanical purpose, jugaad art creatively reuses materials for aesthetic effect. An example of this type of art is Sanjeev Shankar’s Jugaad, a public art project performed in a village on the outskirts of Delhi. The result of the project was a 70-square-meter canopy, which villagers helped Shankar build from discarded cooking oil cans. (These same cans find a variety of other uses, such as hauling water and reinforcing hut doors when flattened.) In addition to producing an interesting aesthetic effect, the canopy also served a specific functional purpose: it provided shade. The canopy stood for three weeks before being scrapped.8

Although jugaad receives wide acclaim from journalists and bloggers, the concept is not without its detractors. Manu Joseph writes in the International Herald Tribune that jugaad is a symptom of a deeper flaw in the Indian national character. For Joseph, Indians favor short-term over long-term gains; they will do what is most expedient in the present.9 Indian blogger Sidin Vadukut echoes a similar sentiment in a post entitled “Die, Jugaad, Die.” Jugaad is not a “national treasure,” it is an irresponsible attitude that has served to prolong India’s problems. To Vadukut, jugaad is not just clever improvisation; it is also “that voice in your head that tells you, when faced with a paperless printer, you should just steal some from the next machine instead of loading a fresh batch.”10

The proponents and detractors writing of jugaad in recent years are primarily Indian journalists and westerners concerned with business news or management theory.11 The thoughts of the villagers who build and drive jugaads in the countryside of northern India remain unreported. (Manu Joseph claims in his piece that urbanites are much more interested in jugaad than villagers.) Although the profusion of literature on jugaad is a recent phenomenon, making the most of resources in India is not new. In the early years of independence, the Indian government had to improvise and use its resources judiciously as it strove to industrialize the country.

  1. For an overview of economic liberalization, see Ramachandra Guha, “Riches,” in India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (New York: Ecco, 2007), 682-708. []
  2. Barun S. Mitra, “India’s ‘informal’ car,” Wall Street Journal, January 31, 1995; Rahul Bedi, “Making the Most of Spare Parts,” The Irish Times, August 26, 2009. []
  3. Anand Giridharadas, “A Formula for Winning in Hard Times,” The International Herald Tribune, July 24, 2010. []
  4. Peter Wilson, “Finding the Keys to Success in India: Perspective,” Business, January 8, 2011. []
  5. Anuj Chopra, “From Kerosene to Rice Husks: Powering India’s Rural Revolution,” The Globe and Mail (Canada), October 7, 2010. []
  6. Dave Praeger, “Jugaad,” Our Delhi Struggle, http://ourdelhistruggle.com/2009/10/07/jugaad/ (accessed February 28, 2012). []
  7. Karl Moore, Daniel Novak, and Veronica Dasovich, “A Lesson From India: Necessity is the Mother of Frugal Innovation,” Business Observer, May 31, 2011. []
  8. Catherine Slessor, “Magic Carpet,” Architectural Review, March 2009, 82-85; Aleksandr Bierig, “In India, Putting the Can in Canopy,” Architectural Record, June 2009, 51. []
  9. Manu Joseph, “For India, Practicality Is a Weakness,” International Herald Tribune, March 3, 2011. []
  10. Sidin Vadukut, “Die, Jugaad, Die,” Livemint.com, http://www.livemint.com/2011/12/09212109/Die-jugaad-die.html (accessed February 28, 2012). []
  11. Jugaad has even become the subject of a full-length management book: Navi Radjou, Jaideep C. Prabhu, and Simone Ahuja, Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012). []

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