What makes the Rio Olympics special? Is it the Brazilian flair for cultural expression or a particular type of Latin hospitality? Is it the weather, the people, the sun, or the city itself?
It is none of these things. What makes the Brazilian games special – according to many who’ve been involved in organizing the Olympics – is “gambiarra”: a national capacity to “make something out of nothing” or ‘make do and mend’.
Whether we should join this celebration of homespun ingenuity is open to doubt, however. Take India is an example.
Pitam Singh is a low caste student studying for an engineering degree in the north Indian city of Meerut. He is a master of the art of “make do and mend”. He would seem, at first blush, a standard-bearer for the type of enterprise associated with “gambiarra”.
When I lived in Meerut a few years ago, Pitam spent much of the year perched high on his college hostel roof moving pipes, gutters and buckets about in an elaborate attempt to harvest rainwater. Several of my conversations inside the hostel were interrupted by the sight of Pitam’s foot dangling next to the window or the noise of him slithering around on the tiles.
It was a ludicrously treacherous job. But it worked: By the end of the monsoon he had filled a large number of plastic bins.
When I asked Pitam’s fellow hostellers about what motivated their friend, they said that he is a type of innovator, a man of experiments. “He’s not rich”, one friend pointed out, “but he has imagination. Pitam is good at improvising, mixing things up and making things work.”
If my friends had spoken Portuguese, they might have said that Pitam had a lot of “gambiarra”. But they used a different word. They said he could do “jugaad”.
Like “gambiarra”, jugaad means “to improvise shrewdly with available resources”. Jugaad is building a vehicle out of an old motorcycleengine lashed to an ox cart. It’s patching together a computer from electronic odds and ends. And it’s also rainwater harvesting; someone told me that Pitam is such a terrific imaginative innovator he should be called “jugaadu’: the one who does jugaad.
The Indian Government, like the Brazilian one, has made much of its citizens’ innate sense of enterprise. The Government of India set up a National Innovation Council whose brief, in part, was to encourage a “million jugaads” across India. NGOs and consultancies have popped up promising to foster “jugaad” (“constraint based opportunism” or“frugal engineering” is the management speak).
The enthusiasm for jugaad in India – and gambiarra in Brazil – amounts to a celebration of ordinary individuals’ ability to problem solve, in their own ways and through their own efforts. It also reflects a concern with the sustainable use of resources.
Yet some in India see jugaad as a type of smokescreen. If poor people have such creative genius, what need is there for state interference in people’s lives? What need is there to increase GDP spending on health and education or ending corruption? None of these things are really necessary because people can always “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”. Jugaad speak can sometimes serve as an ideological fig leaf for governments unwilling to invest in broad-based systems of public welfare.
My student friends have other objections to the celebration of jugaad. There’s a very serious student in Meerut called Joginder, who spent almost all his days giving short lectures on contemporary topics from a tea stall near the university’s main gate. I thought I’d try out jugaad on Joginder. What does he think of the concept? “I am 100% against jugaad”, he said. “I am jugaad’s World Enemy Number One.”
“Why? I asked.
“I have to do jugaad to get hot water in my hostel,” he replied. “I mean do all sorts of tricks with the tank. But we should not be a jugaad country. This is modern India we are talking about!! Why should we be embracing the cobbled together? We should be doing everything properly not in a roundabout way. Also: jugaad is used to refer to corruption – finding a way around. We need less jugaad, not more.”
Pitam agreed, “It’s true,” he said. “For my rainwater harvesting I need the pack that they make abroad, which has also the right equipment. I can’t get it so I have to improvise. I have no option but jugaad.”
There are good reasons to celebrate people’s ingenuity. But jugaad and gambiarra may not be enough.