Technology, History, and Place

Tag: jugaad (Page 2 of 3)

The Benefits of Buying Used

In a particularly successful example of adaptive reuse in independent India, Hindustan Aeronautics, Ltd. (HAL) refurbished forty-two B-24 Liberator bombers, which had been abandoned by the Allied forces when they left India after World War II. After their reintrodution to service in 1948, the bombers served in the Indian Air Force for twenty years.

HAL’s B-24 refurbishment program represents the Indian military’s extensive use of secondhand equipment in the early independence period. India also received decommissioned radar sets from the United States. These sets had been retired and replaced by newer models before being shipped to India. (This did not stop the Texas congressman whose district had supplied some of the decommissioned radar sets from declaring in the House: “This is a deplorable and almost unbelievable situation, indeed, when our Government is willing to close down our own military centers and ship our equipment to any country, much less a Socialist country such as India that has continually played footsie with the Communists.”1 )

The largest, and probably longest-serving example of secondhand military hardware used by India was INS Vikrant, the Indian Navy’s first aircraft carrier. Originally named Hercules and constructed by Vickers-Armstrong (Newcastle) for the Royal Navy, the ship was one of six Majestic-class carriers built during World War II. The ships were meant to last only three years or until the end of the war. None of the six Majestic-class carriers entered service with the Royal Navy; after VJ-Day, they were laid up until the navy could decide their fate. Ultimately, five of the carriers were modified and sold to Commonwealth nations: two to Australia and Canada each, and one to India. (The remaining carrier, Leviathan, was finally scrapped in 1968.)

After the Indian Navy purchased Hercules in 1957, the Belfast shipyard Harland and Wolff spent four years modifying the ship to accommodate modern carrier aircraft. Among changes made during the retrofit, the ship received an angled flight deck and full air-conditioning. The Indian Navy received the newly-commissioned INS Vikrant in March 1961. The ship was pressed into service in the Indian takeover of Goa later that year. In 1971, Vikrant operated in the Bay of Bengal during the Indo-Pakistani War. The Indian Navy retired Vikrant in 1997. With careful maintenance and periodic refittings and modernizations, the navy had kept the ship in service more than fifty years after her keel was originally laid-down—long past her expected service life of three years. By the time of her retirement, she had been replaced by INS Viraat—another secondhand British carrier, originally commissioned in 1959 as HMS Hermes.2

  1. Cong. Rec., 88th Cong., 1st sess., 1963, vol. 109: 15006. []
  2. Roger Chesneau, Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 134-151; Norma Friedman, British Carrier Aviation: The Evolution of the Ships and their Aircraft (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 242; David Hobbs, Aircraft Carriers of the Royal and Commonwealth Navies: The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia from World War I to the Present (London: Greenhill Books, 1996), 107, 200-201. []

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. []

Jugaad’s Cousins

At the beginning of my sojourn in the Garo Hills of northeast India, I was surprised—among other things—to see technologies in use that I did not know were still used anywhere in the world. Farmers plowed their fields with ox-driven plows. Blacksmiths at local markets made knives and axes—not for tourists but for local people to use in their everyday work. Despite the presence of these technologies that I could have considered hopelessly obsolete, I never felt that I was in any time besides the twenty-first century. American celebrity news in the Calcutta Telegraph made sure that northeast India, as isolated as it may have felt, was still very much a part of the modern world.

Old technologies never die: An ox-drawn plow used in the Garo Hills.

Old technologies never die: An ox-drawn plow used in the Garo Hills.

A blacksmith making tools for everyday use in the Garo Hills.

A blacksmith making tools for everyday use in the Garo Hills.

In the Garo Hills, I saw a variety of old and new technologies used side-by-side. My downstairs neighbors embodied the mixed use of old and new. For entertainment, they watched any of a hundred channels on their satellite TV, or popped a VCD into their player—a format that never caught on in the West, but thrives in India. The parents carried cell phones, as did most or all of the other teachers at my school. They cooked on a gas stove, often with a pressure cooker (a 19th-century invention based on 17th-century principles). They washed their clothes by hand and dried them outdoors on clotheslines strung up between areca palm poles.

The effective mixture of old and new technology was a surprise to me because I, like most westerners, tended to think of technology in terms of innovation. In The Shock of the Old, David Edgerton argues that histories of technology should be based on use rather than innovation. Innovation-based narratives exaggerate the importance of technologies that are new, while ignoring old technologies that continue to be used around the world.1 In other words: tractors may be in almost universal use in the West, but many people around the world still eat food from fields tilled by ox-driven plows.

The Shock of the Old is a useful framework for thinking about Indian technology. As Edgerton remarks, a use-based narrative allows every place to have a history of technology, not just the centers of innovation. Western consciousness of Indian technology is usually restricted to the tech centers in places like Bangalore and Hyderabad. But every place uses technology, and can thus be discussed in a use-based narrative.

Edgerton describes several important examples of Indian technology and how a use-based perspective can open up new views of technology. In particular, transportation represents a distinctly non-western approach to technology. Hand-pulled rickshaws, a colonial invention, continue to be used in Kolkata. Cycle-rickshaws and particularly auto-rickshaws are creole technologies—imported technologies that gain new meaning in a different place. First appearing in India in the 1950s, auto-rickshaws were adapted from motor scooters. The auto-rickshaw concept has spread to other parts of Asia.2

An autorickshaw (foreground), an adapted scooter taxi that originated in India in the 1950s.

An autorickshaw (foreground), an adapted scooter taxi that originated in India in the 1950s.

Interior of an auto-rickshaw, showing its scooter-style handlebars.

Interior of an auto-rickshaw, showing its scooter-style handlebars.

I argue here that India’s judicious use of resources was partly necessitated by Cold War politics, India’s non-alignment restricted its access to technology from the industrialized superpowers. Although India received development aid and technology transfer from both the United States and the Soviet Union, India did not receive as much aid as countries that aligned themselves with either side. Another, more extreme, example of a country whose access to technology was inhibited by Cold War politics was Cuba. In the 1950s, Cuba imported American automobiles and consumer goods, but this trade was abruptly suspended after the communist rise to power in 1959. Cut off from American goods because of the trade embargo, Cuba had to rely on the distant Soviet Union for manufactured items that it could not produce indigenously. Throughout the remainder of the Cold War, and even to the present day, American cars, built in the 1950s, continue to be used in Havana. Some antique cars are restored and used to attract tourists; others are cannibalized for spare parts. As Viviana Narotzky writes in an essay in the collection Autopia: “A ’58 Dodge may have a Cadillac front grille, a Skoda radiator, a Plymouth fender and a Honda wheel cover. The brake fluid will be 50 per cent shampoo. None of the push-buttons will work.”3 The continued use of half-century-old American cars in Cuba represents an ingenious adaptation to political and economic conditions.

Technological improvisation and adaptive reuse take place in developed countries as well as the developing world. In Working Knowledge, Douglas Harper describes the operation of a small shop in the rural North Country of New York in the 1970s and 1980s. According to Harper, the North Country (the area north of the Adirondack Mountains) shares traits with many other parts of the rural North, Midwest, and mountain West of the United States. These places are poor, sparsely populated, and isolated from both supply chains and mass culture. Working Knowledge focuses on a shop run by a man named Willie, who specializes in Saab repair but engages in a wide variety of other tasks such as bridge construction and tractor repair. An important part of Willie’s work is bricolage, the adaptation of scraps (bricoles in French) into something useful. Bricoleurs engage in an informal economy, by making use of things that other people would simply throw away.4

My previous post quoted journalists and bloggers who touted Indian jugaad as the key to their country’s economic success. As this post should make clear, technological improvisation and adaptive reuse are not unique to India; they are performed worldwide, from the poorest country to the richest.5 But Indian jugaad is perhaps distinctive because it takes place on a vast range of scales, from projects as small as Subash rigging up wires so that his wife can use her oven, all of the way up to aircraft carriers and hydroelectric dams. In early independent India, the government as well as individual citizens had to improvise technological solutions.

  1. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), xi-xiii. []
  2. Edgerton, Shock of the Old, 43, 46. []
  3. Viviana Narotzky, “Our Cars in Havana,” in Autopia: Cars and Culture, ed. Peter Wollen and Joe Kerr (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), 168-176. []
  4. Douglas Harper, Working Knowledge: Skill and Community in a Small Shop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). []
  5. Most technological improvisation, especially in poor countries, goes undocumented. For an intriguing example from sub-Saharan Africa, see Rowan Moore Gerety, “Ebony woodcarvers learn to craft machine parts, Marketplace, http://www.marketplace.org/topics/world/ebony-woodcarvers-learn-craft-machine-parts. []

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