Delhi summers can be brutally hot, with temperatures of 47C not uncommon. Having recently moved to the capital’s Nizamuddin West colony (which also houses the city’s nullah [drainage channel]), British expat and journalist Dean Nelson wanted an air-conditioning solution for his new home. Flicking through The Hindu newspaper, he stumbled upon an article about the ‘Snowbreeze’, an ice-based cooling machine invented by a retired Indian journalist to help India’s rural poor. Nelson’s curiosity was piqued, especially as it was a fraction of the price of a branded air conditioning system.

Although assembly of the Snowbreeze required the help of a local electrician or carpenter, Nelson duly ordered one. When the contraption arrived at his home a week later, its countenance was disarming. “It was a large blue plastic dustbin with a raised lid mounted on an aquamarine skateboard,” Nelson recalled, explaining that the Snowbreeze is a prime example of ‘jugaad’, a Hindi term best described as a type of frugal innovation or creative hack.

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Travel through rural India and jugaad is everywhere. It’s the rickety truck powering an entire village’s electricity, or the makeshift TV aerials fashioned from coat hangers. It’s seen in the country’s garishly painted trikes, also called ‘jugaads’, that sometimes carry 20 people despite often being powered by a noisy water-pump motor and patched together from spare parts like old motorbike pieces and wooden planks.

The can-do approach is also personified by the thousands of white-capped dabbawallahs who somehow wheel precarious stacks of stainless-steel tiffin boxes safely through the chaos of Mumbai's streets each day to deliver hot lunches and afternoon tea to the city's 200,000 office-workers. Their estimated error rate is one delivery in 16 million, so it is little wonder FedEx has visited them to discover the secrets of their phenomenal reliability.

In recent years, jugaad has become a corporate buzzword, with management gurus advising Western businesses to use the thrifty entrepreneurialism as a blueprint for success in tough economic times. Meanwhile, the Twitter hashtag #jugaadnation has become a source of ironic pride among younger Indians, sending hastily assembled hacks – such as irons used to barbecue meat or laptop screens doubling as shaving mirrors – viral.

“Indians have a tradition of improvising to find immediate solutions to problems,” Chennai-based entrepreneur Kannan Lakshminarayan told me. “If you’re living in a remote village with frequent power-outs, somebody will crank up their automobile and power the house.”

Lakshminarayan’s company, Vortex Engineering Private Limited, developed the Gramateller ATM, a cash dispenser that uses the electricity equivalent to that of a 70-watt light bulb. Developed using a limited budget, it has fingerprint authentication for illiterate users, and a built-in, back-up battery so it can run even when there is no power.

Costing one-fourth the price of an average ATM, it has proved indispensable for rural communities, where the nearest bank machine could be hundreds of miles away. Not only does its frugal innovation represent jugaad, but its inventor says that its trial-and-error principles were used to create the machine too: “We use the jugaad approach when designing things… it enables us to quickly validate an idea or find out if something doesn’t work.”

In a country where, according to The World Bank, 270 million people live below the poverty line, using creativity to produce new things is essential. As Nelson – who authored Jugaad Yatra: Exploring the Indian Art of Problem Solving – says, “When you couple this resourcefulness borne from hardship with India’s competitive culture, you’re going to get different solutions than you would elsewhere.”

However, India’s government has recently used jugaad on a more audacious scale.

In November 2013, India launched its Mangalyaan orbiter mission from a small island in the Bay of Bengal. Ten months later, it became the first Asian spacecraft to orbit Mars. At $75m (£46m), Mangalyaan was a snip compared to other space launches (by 2014, International Space Station had cost an estimated $160bn). It operated on a shoestring budget thanks to reusing spacecraft modules and performing fewer (and therefore more efficient) ground tests; videos posted by the Indian Space Research Organisation even showed scientists wearing plastic shower caps, presumably in lieu of protective headgear. Modi later proudly bragged that sending one rocket into space cost less than the budget of Hollywood film Gravity.

“With the Mars rocket, other scientists would have said, ‘Sorry, but this can’t be done’,” Nelson said. “But there’s a resilience with Indians; they don’t give up easily.”

There’s a resilience with Indians; they don’t give up easily

With Mangalyaan currently orbiting the red planet, the business world has also sought to replicate jugaad’s creative cost-cutting. Mumbai business-powerhouse Tata created a low-cost, non-electric version of its Swach water purifier for Indians who may not have access to clean drinking water. The company also made motoring more affordable to ordinary Indians by repeatedly slashing costs of its automobiles. In 2009, its Nano made headlines when it was launched as ‘the world’s cheapest car’, saving on cost by eschewing features such as airbags, radios, central locking and air conditioning.

Western start-ups can also benefit from adopting jugaad principles, says Jaideep Prabhu, co-author of Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth. “You’ve now got frugal start-ups doing things faster and cheaper than large companies. Just look at Raspberry Pi [credit card-sized computers designed to help youngsters get interested in coding] which was developed in Cambridge University. Technology has enabled small groups of teams in universities to do things only large companies or governments could 10 to 20 years ago.”

Of course, it could be argued that jugaad isn’t unique to India. After all, many developing nations employ frugal innovation as a matter of necessity. The Brazilians call it gambiarra, the Chinese zizhu chuangxin. As Nelson pointed out, the UK’s “Wallace and Gromit [the animated cheese-loving inventor and his canine sidekick] and home-shed innovators” could be described as jugaadists, too.

But there does seem to be something ingrained, even spiritual, about the Indian variant. As Nelson notes, even the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh acquired his pachyderm features in true jugaad fashion: after being beheaded by Shiva, so the stories go, a human head couldn’t be found, so an elephant’s head was grafted on instead.

We’re inventive people who’ll find solutions in the toughest circumstances

As for contemporary jugaad, Nelson believes it may stem from Nehru-governed 1950s India, a time when a lack of imports saw “people adapting the Western goods they had because they couldn’t be replaced… That period of hardship formed a new Indian identity: ‘We’re inventive people who’ll find solutions in the toughest circumstances’.”

However, despite #jugaadnation’s popularity, some Indians view the term negatively. For them, jugaad has connotations of shoddy workmanship, bending the rules, botch jobs and a palpable sense of ‘winging it’. When his book was released, Prabhu notes “older Indians were openly hostile to championing something they were deeply embarrassed by.”

This ‘bad jugaad’ could describe the Delhi residents who fudged registration plates when the city introduced an environmental rule restricting the use of even and odd number-plated cars on certain days of the week. Or the ‘missed calls’ phenomenon, whereby some Indians dial a number and disconnect before the call is picked up, thereby saving money by getting the other person to call them back.

More seriously, negative jugaad could mean failing to follow health and safety rules or bribing officials. Even Tata’s much-hyped Nano came unstuck in 2014, taken out of production after failing safety tests.

What we see in the West as impossible, Indians will see possibility

“What we see in the West as impossible, Indians will see possibility, for good or bad,” Nelson added. “That’s why India’s task is to purge the cynicism of bad jugaad and harness the best of good jugaad… It’s holding India back from its potential to be a world leader otherwise.”

Still, technology might lead the way. India is currently the world’s second-largest mobile market, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has plans to develop the country as a digital economy (including creating a biometric database of every one of its 1.3bn citizens). Prabhu believes that “marrying Indians’ recycling mindset with mobile technology could see an explosion of more sophisticated jugaad.”

Nelson’s Snowbreeze machine might not have been high-tech – but it did work. However, in order to be effective, it needed a 20kg block of ice delivered to his house every day, at Rs60 each time. For Nelson, “Snowbreeze economics didn’t really stack up”. But like many other jugaad products, the can-do innovation behind it was infectious. It’s an idealism that is helping the national psyche.

“There’s [now] this idea in India, no matter what problems we’re faced with, we have the confidence to find our way around it,” Nelson noted. “That circumvention or bypassing has become adopted as a uniquely Indian trait. It’s something people in their families and lives can laugh about, but also something they can feel very proud of, too.”

Why We Are What We Are is a BBC Travel series examining the characteristics of a country and investigating whether they are true.

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