Jugaad: Stories of Desi Innovation (Let’s Chaat, episode 2 transcript)

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Anjali: Hey, you’re listening to ‘Let’s Chaat: Stories of Fellowship,’ the podcast of the 2019-2020 cohort of the American India Foundation Clinton Fellows. We are a group of about 20 young professionals in various parts of the social or development sector in India. I’m Anjali Balakrishna, one of the fellows in this year’s cohort, and I’m your host.

Here we are chatting (or “chaating,” if you don’t mind a good food pun) about our memories and stories from the fellowship, living and working in various parts of India. The fellowship is a unique opportunity to learn and grow through unexpected challenges which has made for some interesting stories. Every episode basically stands alone, with a theme that provides some loose unity – but every fellow interprets the theme in a slightly different way, giving us a delicious masala of storytelling. So let’s dig in! 

Today our episode is titled ‘Jugaad: Stories of Desi Innovation.’ Jugaad is a Hindi word. The closest English translation would probably be ‘jury-rigging,’ but that doesn’t quite capture it all. There’s more to it than that – the stories in this episode should illustrate why. 

Our first story today is brought to you by Pallavi Deshpande, who worked at Vision Aid in Vizag, Andhra Pradesh where she developed training content and piloted a scholarship program for visually impaired students. Today, she describes one particular October afternoon, when she was helping to prepare a spoken English class for some Vision Aid students. The class was to be held on Zoom, and the local staff were going to moderate between the remote teacher and the students at their office. 

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Pallavi: The staff were logging in, making sure the logistics were all set up. From my little desk in the manager’s office, I could see the students, some excitedly chatting and some barely stifling yawns. It was just after lunch, so the yawns were understandable! 

One student, Devanna, had just put his handkerchief away and was taking in the breeze from the fan when a pop sounded. The fan stopped spinning and the internet modem lost its power supply. 

However, the student computers and admin computer were still humming on, powered by the inverter/generator, as though a calamity had not just befallen the scholars of Vision Aid. Put less dramatically, there had been a power cut. 

The generator did not supply electricity to the modem and so, there was no internet. It was 12:55pm by now – only five more minutes before the online class would begin. Should we just call the teachers and cancel today’s online class, or find a way to ensure that the class goes on? This was the decision to make, and to be made soon. 

The conflict between relief at class being potentially canceled and sadness over not getting to meet and chat with their teachers was visibly etched on the scholars’ faces. As the minutes passed, the humidity in the room grew and with it, impatience. What was going on?

The office manager called the local electricity office, who after 5 long minutes of keeping him on hold, informed him that because of some repair work in the area, there was going to be a 2-hour power cut, from 1-3pm, everyday this week. Immediately, we all agreed that classes could not possibly be canceled for a whole week — that was too much time lost and they’d already gotten a couple extra days off for local festival celebrations. We had to figure out a way.

In the chaos of that afternoon, between various calls to the bosses and the teachers, someone shouted “Hotspot”. We had smartphones, right? Why don’t we connect to the internet through our mobile hotspot? I remember gathering around the office manager’s table, doing calculations about when, how, and who would connect to the computer. Most of us only had a 1 GB data per day allowance and some of that data had already been used up by that point. An hour-long Zoom call certainly took more than 1 GB. We decided to do a ‘relay’ race type situation — one would provide a hotspot for 30 mins before the next staff member would hop on. Between the 3-4 of us, we could make this work.

So for the next week, we drew out a schedule detailing our shifts for providing our phones as hotspot devices during this period. Did accidentally forgetting to charge a phone interrupt the plan? Perhaps. But what I remember is that all of this became a fun, competitive game and a bonding experience of sorts. We even drew the scholars in, having them keep score of who had provided their phone the most number of times and who messed up the plan. 

So when I think of Jugaad, it’s never a big grand plan. It’s the small simple things in life that we’re trying to patch up. One of the things this experience taught me was that yes, jugaad is a part of everything we do, but more importantly, collective jugaad, one that involves more than just yourself, but your team, can be so much fun and result in memories that last way longer than the jugaad ever will! 

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Anjali: Hello everyone, you’re listening to Let’s Chaat: Stories of Fellowship and I’m back with two guests, Aishwarya Maheshwari and Sahana Afreen, who both had to use Jugaad this year at their host sites. So I’m going to start by introducing our listeners to these two wonderful ladies.

Sahana – so glad to have you on the podcast today. Could you tell us a little bit about where you are and where you were for your fellowship? 

Sahana: Hey Anjali! Right now I’m in my city, Delhi, and my host organization was in Orissa, particularly in Ganjam district. So I was there for 8 months working with tribal women and my host organization, whatever I can do during this time.

Anjali: Great to have you Sahana, and over to Aishwarya. Tell us again where you are and where you were for your fellowship.

Aishwarya: Hey Anjali, hi Sahana! So I worked at Khamir, a grassroots organization in Kutch, Gujarat for 8 months, but since COVID-19 pandemic I had to shift back to my hometown, so I’m currently in Jodhpur. I’ve been working from home and completing all my deliverables. Yeah!

Anjali: Great, so sticking to your fellowship despite being back at home, that’s wonderful. So you were both based in different locations, but it looks like you both have some similar stories that involve travel that you’re going to share with us. 

Just a note for our listeners: because Aishwarya and Sahana are both at home, you might be hearing some sounds of households in the background. 

So in front of me I have a couple of briefs about your stories – Sahana yours involves fruit lorries, and Aishwarya, yours involves an Amazon delivery guy! So I am really curious to hear these stories! Let’s start with Sahana, can you tell me a little bit about your story and what happened?

Sahana: Yeah, so my host organization and the community with which I was working was quite interior and there was no public transport to commute, so I used to have a lot of problems traveling to the community and coming back to where I was staying (about 15 km in radius to this place). When I started getting this problem – my visits to the community were an important part of my project, and I couldn’t skip that.

So I find out this jugaad for myself that whoever goes to that side where I want to go, I’ll just ask for a lift. I had this intuition that people in this place are quite nice, and they won’t harm me if I ask anyone for a lift. In comparison, where I live in Delhi, this is not a good action for me to take forward. So I had this faith in this community that people are not going to harm me. So I did that, and one day I got a lift from a lorry guy who was delivering fruits to one part of the Ganjam to another part of the Ganjam. So that’s how we got to meet.

This person was really sweet, really nice. He picked me and two other people from that particular road, and dropped us around 10 km down the way where I wanted to go. And we shared really good stories. Like we shared why I’m here from Delhi, and why I’m here, and he told me that he travels all the way around India and he offered me help if I wanted to go home and he shared his number because he also delivers in Delhi and he liked the work I was doing in the community.

Anjali: So you’ve got yourself a personal taxi anytime you needed to go back and forth to Delhi, but also where you needed to go for your project!

Sahana: Yeah, sort of! Obviously in normal circumstances, if not a pandemic has occurred, I wouldn’t have this situation to ask a lorry guy to take me to my city. But yeah, we did that in this scenario. We asked many people – and many migrants asked for lifts from lorry guys or whichever they managed to travel back to their places.

Anjali: So this idea of jugaad, of kind of making it work, figuring a way out, figuring a way through it, you were able to use this when you were trying to get to the sites that you needed to get to to meet with the communities you were working with. But you also saw this happening as the COVID crisis set in and people needed to get back to their homes, is that right?

Sahana: Yes, yes, definitely.

Anjali: Wonderful, awesome. Now we’re going to move over to Aishwarya, and hear about your story with this Amazon delivery guy. Tell us a little bit about what happened!

Aishwarya: You know, the people in rural areas are not the same as urban! And they’re way more trustworthy, way more nice, patient with you, because they know where you’re coming from. And they empathize with you way faster than people in the urban areas. And things are not the same in the rural areas as they are in urban cities.

There’s connectivity issues, there’s transport issues, so you basically have to do jugaad to get to wherever you want to be. Especially when you do not have your own vehicle as well. So that’s something that happened with me.

So I stayed in Bhuj, but my host organization was 15 km away. So everyday I had to travel like 30 km to and fro. So I had to take different transports. One time, I reached our village where my host organization was based – it’s called Kukma. So I reached Kukma and I figured that there was no transport available for me to reach my host organization which is again, 3 km away from Kukma village. So then and there I got a call, and I picked it up. I was like, “Hey who is it?”

And the Amazon delivery guy answered, “Hello ma’am, I’m coming to deliver your books.”

I was like, “Okay, great, so where are you?”

He was like, “I am at Kukma.”

“Where exactly in Kukma?”

So he said he was at this point, like he mentioned a local shop, and I was like, “I’m right there!” And then I thought for a second, it was… Okay, first to give you some plot – The sun was right on top of my head, it was scorching. The host organization is 3 km away, so I was wondering if I should walk it out or just take the lift, and so I asked the guy, “So are you going to Khamir?”

He said, “Yeah I’m going to Khamir to deliver your books, where are you?”

I said, “I’m at Kukma, could you please take me along??”

So that’s what happened! I took a lift from him, and then we went together.

Anjali: So you had the Amazon delivery guy be your ride to work that day?? So he not only delivered the books to your host site, but he delivered you to your host site!

Aishwarya: Right on point!

Anjali: That is a very, very good example of jugaad! Amazing… what a great story! Thank you both for sharing those stories with us.

One thing to note that both Aishwarya and Sahana mentioned was that, when you use jugaad to get a ride somewhere, you need to be safe and responsible – make sure it’s with people you can trust. But I think that their stories show us how you can always find a way – literally find a way to get from Point A to Point B – even if it’s not obvious, even if the path is not clear initially. 

Now, if you aren’t yet convinced about Jugaad and what it means yet, don’t worry – we have a couple more examples for you coming up so stay tuned. 

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Anjali: Support for this podcast comes from the American India Foundation Clinton Fellowship. A fellowship where American and Indian young professionals are placed all over India to work at and support organizations in the fields of public health, livelihoods and education.

I’m Anjali Balakrishna, your host, and you’re listening to Let’s Chaat: Stories of Fellowship. 

Our next story comes from Arya Diwase. Here, she reflects on the education system and popular attitudes towards jugaad over time. 

Arya: “Jugaadu mat bano” – I think all of us have heard this phrase at some point in our lives, at least I have.

Till 10th grade, I studied at an all-girls convent school in Pune, and for all those years I was preached to about following a defined career path, not taking the easy way to reach my goal and not to question what I was taught. Any deviation or alternative approach was called “jugaad.”

This is characteristic of most traditional education systems in India. Obedience and consistency are rewarded, whereas innovation and curiosity are often stifled. The system expects a uniform response to its interventions regardless of social, economic, or cultural differences among its members. 

I remember a friend of mine, whose parents were a part of a pop music band, was denied membership to the school band solely because she used YouTube tutorials and quick tips from her parents to learn the guitar instead of following the school’s systematic approach to learning the instrument. She couldn’t afford to study with the school’s structured music program, but this fact was ignored. She was denied an opportunity due to the means that she used to get there. “Jugaad” is what they called it: “The easy way out.” 

As an AIF Clinton fellow this year, I worked at Dream a Dream, which is an education non-profit in Bangalore. Dream a Dream empowers marginalized students by using a creative approach to teach life skills such as problem-solving, creative thinking, interpersonal skills, listening, and taking initiative. I was working with the communication team to capture some of their work and its impact through film. Dream a Dream had helped the Uttarakhand state government develop the “Anandam” (happiness) curriculum, and I was there to film the rollout. 

During an interview with a teacher, I asked if the students were actually demonstrating any of the learnings in their everyday life. She picked up a beautiful basket from her desk, which she was using to hold her keys, stationary, and other miscellaneous items and held it up for the camera. She said that it was after a few sessions of the Anandam curriculum, a boy, who came from a family of ragpickers, had been inspired by the waste around him and used it as raw material for an arts project. “Usne jugaad karke banaya.” [He used jugaad to make this item.] What struck me wasn’t the beautiful basket but rather the teacher’s sense of pride as she narrated this “jugaadu’s” story. 10 years ago, a word that stuck out to me as an insult was now characteristic of creativity, innovation and making the most of one’s circumstances.

10 years haven’t changed the definition of jugaad. But what’s different is the perception of the approach between my former teacher and the teacher I met in Uttarakhand. Over 10 years, non-profits like Dream a Dream and education advocates have pushed for reimagining the purpose of education. They have pushed to mould students to succeed not despite their circumstances but by using those circumstances. There has slowly but surely been a mindset shift in how one must find ways of empowering themselves even through adversity to thrive, create and innovate. And while “Jugaad” is now celebrated, we also need to celebrate the efforts to develop mental capacities or socio-emotional faculties that enable that kind of action.

Jugaad isn’t a process – it’s a mindset. 

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Anjali: Next up we have Jane Hammaker, who came upon a slightly different perspective on jugaad. During her fellowship, Jane worked with Yuwa, in rural Jharkhand, outside of Ranchi, developing a curriculum for Yuwa’s life skills workshop program. 

Jane: So I had just come back from India for the first time. I had spent about 3 months in Delhi for an internship and was returning to UVA for the start of my final year. Early in the semester, my policy school held an international night, with round table discussions where professors hosted conversations on different countries around the world that they were either from or researching. 

One of my Professors was from Mumbai, and I was excited to sit at his table. So, we were talking about India, I think the economy or something, and I jumped in with something about how I really respected the people I had met living in rural areas, for their jugaad, and for all of the ways they came up with innovative solutions to solve their problems.

This professor was in the Social Entrepreneurship department within the policy school, and he just kinda shut me down. He was like, ‘ya know what, no, I think India needs to move past these cheap solutions. People take the cheap way out instead of investing in long-term, sustainable, structural change.’ 

I was surprised to be put in my place so abruptly, especially by an authority – a professor, an Indian professor. I didn’t press any further. But it really made me think.

It was an interesting point that he made – that sometimes jugaad can be cheap. It may actually be genius to sell ‘fake’ apple branded phone chargers on the side of the road, or to patch up the hole in your wall with a regular household object, or use your bicycle to carry hundreds of kgs of coal across town. But it might also rip someone off to sell a phone charger that’s going to break. Not eventually – probably inevitably. It might be exploiting the laborer that will work his body to the bone hauling cargo with a bike through busy traffic. 

As they say, necessity is the mother of all invention. To me, it’s clear that these jugaad entrepreneurs are working with the resources they have to maximize their efficiency—they’re minimizing their operating costs to maximize their profits. And that’s the brilliance of it, to me, the spirit of entrepreneurship. On the other hand, can a vendor make a sustainable living by selling cheap products? Will the hole in the wall eventually just get bigger? Maybe.

To the professor, I would ask: Will the sustainable solutions just have to wait until the world becomes more equitable?? 

For those confined by circumstances beyond their control, what is there to do in the meantime, aside from making these so-called “cheap solutions” work with some creative jugaad? When resources are low, there’s often no perfect/sustainable/long-term solution available. Otherwise, people would do that!  You have to make do, you have to innovate, you jugaad. 

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Anjali: Thank you all for joining us today – both listeners and storytellers – for Let’s Chaat: Stories of Fellowship. 

In India, you often find yourself in a bind due to poor infrastructure, chaotic circumstances, or some combination of the two. Jugaad is a way to solve such a problem using a makeshift solution, by keeping everything in a complex equilibrium and a delicate balance. It’s an approach that can sometimes seem like negligence but sometimes shows itself as kindness. Like India itself, jugaad is complicated. 

Next week, we have 7 more stories lined up for you, and it’s sure to be a steamy episode! Join us next week for Tandoor: Stories of Heat and Let’s Chaat. I’m Anjali Balakrishna and I’ll see you next time. 

McKenna is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Medha in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. For her Fellowship project, she is expanding partnerships with educational institutions to scale up an existing 21st-century career skills training center designed to improve employment outcomes for youth. McKenna graduated with a degree in nutritional sciences. During her undergraduate years, she participated in research on the iron fortificants and protein quality of different fortified blended food products used by the U.S. Agency for International Development to address malnutrition and iron-deficient anemia in developing countries. After several years of nutrition research, she began questioning the underlying causes of malnutrition and poverty in the developing world. She diversified her work to investigate the social and economic factors that impact health outcomes, such as a community advocacy group for affordable housing in Manhattan, Kansas, and eventually to Split, Croatia, in 2017 to learn more about socialized healthcare systems. A childhood exposure to Indian culture left McKenna with a lifelong passion for the country, which led her to spend four months studying abroad in Bangalore at Christ University. She is excited to return to India in a professional capacity as an AIF Clinton Fellow. During her year of service, McKenna is looking forward to evolving professionally, engaging with the cohort, and gaining new perspectives on the development sector.

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