A day after I arrived in Chennai during the first week of the new year, I saw a car languishing on the road behind ours. I stared in disbelief at the dust-covered relic.
“Dead from being waterlogged for days,” Vinayagam, my late father’s chauffeur, said. The car was a bone-dry testament to the titanic ferocity of the massive floods that upended Chennai in December 2015. With a finger, someone had etched a “Happy New Year” on the car’s sightless window.
One month after the deluge, the city’s vehicles still await their turn at the repair shop. My father’s car is waiting for a spare part, too. Now, whenever Vinayagam wants to honk—which is almost always—the sound of his brand new car horn floods the air. A wily mechanic engineered a quick workaround for our car: He fixed a 10-rupee doorbell to the right of the steering wheel.
“That is India, madam,” Vinayagam said to me as I poked fun at the contraption. “In India, we find economical, efficient patches to problems.” Indians refer to this spirit by a Hindi term that is now in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary: jugaad. This crude and expedient “make-do” quality is a modus operandi in developing nations. Businessmen in the west envy it because it’s often a precursor to innovation.
I see jugaad at work every day in Chennai outside my father’s apartment. Azhagappan, the mobile ironing man, works ten hour days on the roadside pressing clothes with a hot coal iron. He lacks a table; but he uses the burls and branches of a neem tree right by him as a shelf, a table top and a coat rack for the accoutrements of his ironing business.
The leitmotif of jugaad rises into cadence in most places in India because adversity offers opportunity. Decades ago, the Indian government started a daily “midday meals” scheme for poor children in rural communities. Children who craved one decent meal a day were concurrently force-fed an education.
I read a story about an entrepreneur, Harish Hande, who soldered the midday meal concept into his business goal. He sold more than 100,000 modular solar lighting systems in the remote corners of India even as the Indian government was groping in the dark on how to bring electricity to Indians who lived off the grid. Solar panels were installed on school premises and batteries were given to children who charged them at school. If a child did not attend school daily, there would be no light at home. Hande also implemented the idea through a cost-effective grassroots distribution network.
Hande’s innovative thinking—in disseminating a solution across a huge population—was seen even during the natural disaster in Chennai, especially when the city administration failed to address every emergency in a timely fashion.
When Chennai flooded, Ola, India’s leading cab-hailing app startup, began plying fishermen’s boats through streets addressing rescue and relief operations. Days after the worst downpour, a businessman unleashed his grandfather’s military vehicle for reaching food to marooned residents. He maneuvered his 1943 Ford GPA Amphibious Seep—a vehicle that had once put thousands of Allied troops on the Normandy beach during World War II—through Chennai’s rough waters to supply food packets.
The spirit of jugaad was on display everywhere in Chennai during the crisis. Aruna Subramaniam, one of the volunteers coordinating food production, told me about the crafty improvisations of helpers as they went about conjuring up thrifty and environmentally sound measures to pack food and relief supplies. They eschewed manmade products and used banana leaves instead. Storm drains had been choked by plastic during the deluge and volunteers had to devise bio-degradable alternatives that would not add to the garbage mounting all around town as residents discarded household objects destroyed by rain.
Aruna shared a heartwarming story that showed yet another facet of jugaad. In response to a natural disaster, relief volunteers drove towards solutions in harmony with nature—and with one another. When all that mattered was to feed hungry mouths, a Hindu wedding cook taught and worked alongside a Muslim chef to make large batches of tamarind rice; at times during the course of the week, another culinary expert strode into their kitchen. His name was Xavier.
“To live and to let live” thus became Chennai’s refrain as the year turned, a significant byproduct, I suppose, of this ineffable thing called jugaad.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.