Technology, History, and Place

Category: Indian tech (Page 1 of 2)

Jugaad-spotting in eastern Rajasthan

A jugaad truck in a market town in Sawai Madhopur district, Rajasthan.

A jugaad truck in a market town in Sawai Madhopur district, Rajasthan.

The word “jugaad” has several meanings in the Hindi language. In some contexts, the word can mean informal or improvised repair of something. Another meaning of the word is the use of some object in a manner that the creators did not intend. When a mechanic uses shampoo in place of brake fluid, he is performing jugaad. When mustard oil cans are flattened out and shaped into the door of a hut, this too is jugaad.

In eastern Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh, “jugaad” has an additional definition: trucks that are produced by local craftsmen in village and town workshops, not in factories.

Jugaads do not have automobile engines. Instead, they use pumps, which were originally designed to draw water out of borewells to irrigate crops. The designers of the pumps did not intend for their products to be used in automobiles. But just as these pumps can draw water out of wells, they can also drive a vehicle.

I recently got the chance to take a close look at one of these pumps in its natural habitat, when I visited some friends’ village near the border of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. My friends took me to their fields outside of the village and showed me their pump, which was situated in the corner of a wheatfield. The pump did not have a starter motor; it was started by a hand crank that was stashed under some bushes. Once the pump started running, it began to shoot out a stream of clear, cool ground-water. It also produced a foul-smelling cloud of diesel fumes.

In addition to the pump-engines, jugaads are made of other parts gathered from various sources, including wheels, a steering wheel, and a radiator. Jugaads usually do not have any headlights or signaling lights. They never have license plates or registration papers. Since they are unregistered, the government cannot collect taxes on them. But even though they are unregistered, the government is aware of them, and has made laws about them on a district by district basis. Unregistered vehicles are technically illegal, but several district governments have decided that since jugaads are important in the agrarian economy of the district, jugaad production and use shall continue unimpeded. In eastern Rajasthan’s Dausa, Karauli, and Sawai Madhopur districts, jugaads are a common sight. They are especially evident in towns where farmers use them to bring their crops to market.

In other districts, jugaads nowhere to be seen. I have heard that they were banned in Bharatpur district two or three years ago after a jugaad crashed into a school bus, killing several children. The district council then understandably decided to ban jugaads for safety reasons. Jugaads are also rare sights in Jaipur district, and I have never seen even a single jugaad in Jaipur city. A co-passenger on a bus from Bharatpur to Jaipur once told me that there are no jugaads in Jaipur because the city government has banned them since their pump-engines produce so much pollution. As interesting as I find jugaads, I am glad they are not in Jaipur. The city’s traffic is bad enough with all of its cars, trucks, buses, rickshaws, and especially motorcycles, not to mention bicycles and camel-carts.

(For a more detailed analysis of the multiple meanings of “jugaad,” please see my post “The Mystique of Jugaad.”)

The stick-shift minivan

A Toyota Innova crossing the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in Mumbai (Bombay).

A Toyota Innova crossing the Bandra-Worli Sea Link in Mumbai (Bombay).

In the USA, manual transmission or shift-shift automobiles are so uncommon that I make a comment whenever I get into a friend’s car that has a manual transmission. When automatic transmissions first started to sell in large numbers in the American market in the 1950s, manual transmissions became known as “standard transmission,” because automatic transmissions were more expensive and therefore comparatively uncommon. Nowadays, though, cars with automatic transmissions dominate the American roads so much that manual transmissions are no longer the market standard.

The introduction of automatic transmissions in the United States was one step in the de-skilling of driving. Other steps in the process have been the introduction of electric starters and, much later, GPS navigation. Driving is still a skill in the United States, but thanks in part to these technological changes, the learning curve is shallower now than it was before World War II.

Driving has been less de-skilled in India than in the United States. This does not mean that driving on Indian roads is more difficult than in America, although from my limited experience with driving in India I can say that is definitely the case. What I mean by this is that learning to drive is a steeper learning curve in India, and a greater portion of the drivers on the road are professionals. This is gradually changing, as more and more middle-class people are buying their own cars and driving them themselves. But the portion of professional drivers on the road in India is still much higher than in the United States, where the majority of drivers are amateurs.1

Partly because driving has been less de-skilled in India, automatic transmissions have never caught on.2 I have been told that cars with automatic transmissions exist in India, but I have certainly never seen one, after having spent the better part of two years in the country. The absolute dominance of manual transmissions has led to some unusual (from an American perspective) technological hybrids. My favorite is the Toyota Innova, a stick-shift minivan.

Minivans originated in the United States, with the first model, the Dodge Caravan, released in 1984.3 In the USA in the 1990s, minivans were the ultimate family car. As vehicles designed for busy moms and dads, minivans of course all had automatic transmissions. They also had plenty of space for kids and carseats, and absolutely zero sex appeal.

In India, minivans do not suffer from the same stigma of un-coolness. The Toyota Innova is the most common minivan on the Indian roads.4 Like every other car I have ever seen in India, Innovas all have manual transmissions. I suppose there must be some Indian soccer moms who haul their kids around in Innovas, but I have not encountered any. Most Innovas I have seen are not private cars. There are plenty of Innova taxis in the big cities. The Delhi Police have had Innovas outfitted with flashing lights, and they use these as interceptors. I have even heard that Indian-made Innovas have been exported to Afghanistan, where the US military used them – despite the confusion of driving on the right side of the road in a vehicle built to drive on the left.

  1. This is a general observation I have made, although I have no numbers to back up my claim. In Kolkata (Calcutta) in May of this year, I tried making a tally of vehicles with yellow license plates (commercial vehicles, including taxis) versus vehicles with white plates (private vehicles). The traffic was moving much too fast for an accurate count, but it appeared that private vehicles predominated slightly. Of course, not all of the private vehicles are driven by amateurs, as it is not uncommon for car owners to hire chauffeurs to do the driving for them. The portion of public and private vehicles on the road also varies in different parts of the country. Private vehicles are more common in the wealthier cities, but public vehicles predominate in poorer rural areas. []
  2. Another market where manual transmissions dominate is western Europe, although likely for different reasons. []
  3. The Smithsonian Institution has determined that the Dodge Caravan is historically significant. When the “America on the Move” gallery opened in 2003, it included a real early-model Caravan stuck in simulated Los Angeles freeway traffic. []
  4. Wikipedia identifies the Innova as a “compact multipurpose vehicle” rather than a minivan, but I do not make this distinction. []

Bharat ke Mangal ki Yatra (India’s Mars Journey)

On the morning of September 24, 2014 (India time), the Mangalyaan-1 space probe entered into orbit of Mars. Mangalyaan-1 was designed and built in India, financed by Indian taxpayers, and launched on an Indian PSLV rocket from Shriharikota in Andhra Pradesh. Over the course of a month, the probe orbited the Earth, progressively climbing to higher orbits before using Earth’s gravity to slingshot it toward Mars. When Mangalyaan finally reached Mars almost eleven months later, it became the first probe built in Asia to reach the Red Planet. This was also the first time that any nation successfully sent a probe to Mars on their first attempt.

The Indian media was abuzz over this distinctive national accomplishment. Commentators praised the engineers and scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for reaching Mars cheaply and efficiently, but still flawlessly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi observed the goings-on at mission control in Bangalore, and then delivered a televised speech to a crowd of ISRO engineers. His speech, delivered partly in English and partly in Hindi, represents the rhetoric surrounding Mangalyaan’s successful arrival at Mars (sorry, no subtitles):

PM Modi emphasized that the probe was built “indigenously and upon Indian effort, spreading from Bangalore to Bhubaneshwar, and Faridabad to Rajkot”—for less than the cost of a Hollywood movie. The rhetoric of indigeneity and technological self-reliance is more than fifty years old. It was first articulated in the Third Five-Year Plan (issued in 1961), which stated that “India’s economy must not only expand rapidly, but must, at the same time, become self-reliant and self-generating.”

This proved to be an elusive goal. Certain industries became fully indigenous, but other remained out of India’s grasp. India’s military-industrial complex has so far failed to satisfy the nation’s needs, and India became, and remains, the world’s largest arms importer. Where India has succeeded in indigenization is in high-tech, big-science fields. India makes its own nuclear reactors and space probes, but still has to import more mundane equipment such as passenger jets.

Itty Abraham argues in The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb that when India became a nuclear power in 1974, it was too late to matter.1 In other words, by 1974 the ability to detonate a nuclear warhead no longer entitled a nation to membership in the elite club of the most technologically-sophisticated nations. Sadly, this seems to be the case for India’s space accomplishments as well. In his speech at ISRO, PM Modi declared, “With this particular success, ISRO joins an elite group of only three other agencies worldwide to have successfully reached the Red Planet.” True as this may be, the world seems not to have taken much notice. Although the Indian media was thrilled by Mangalyaan’s arrival at Mars, the American media, at least, has remained unmoved. Mangalyaan was not even mentioned in today’s issue of the New York Times.

  1. Itty Abraham, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb: Science, Secrecy, and the Postcolonial State (London: Zed Books, 1998), 166. []

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