India does not need govt to drive innovation

Over the past several weeks, an exaggerated importance has been brought to bear on jugaad, or simple human ingenuity that Indians have historically used to overcome life’s little, and peculiar, adversities.

First, the New York Times featured a long article by Anand Giridharadas on what it called “frugal innovation;” Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar of The Economic Times glorified the “phenomenon” and believed it was behind many of the nation’s recent corporate successes, not to mention its utility in socialist India; and then management professors (Peter Cappelli, Harbir Singh, Jitendra Singh and Mike Useem) from the Wharton school of business, writing in The Wall Street Journal, concluded that jugaad, reflected in “the capacity of Indian firms to adapt quickly and improvise creatively to deal with limited resources,” was a legitimate subject of management study.

Also, it must be mentioned that two business dailies (The Economic Times and Mint) have been running series of articles on Made in India innovations for the past several months, making it a media orgy of innovation. Only Swapan Dasgupta, a columnist wearing political glasses, saw jugaad as negative, saying examples of such ingenuity have “scarred India,” (preparation of the Commonwealth Games, for example) and was dismayed by the “celebration of expediency, shortcuts and shoddiness.”

In any case, the government last week set up a National Innovation Council. It is headed by 1980s telecom czar Sam Pitroda and includes a wealth of minds. Former Boston Consulting Group chief Arun Maira, former ISRO chief K. Kasturirangan, former Nasscom chief Kiran Karnik, Tata Sons Executive Director R. Gopalakrishnan and film-maker Shekhar Kapur are among its 17 members. The U.S.-based Pitroda said the council would foster innovation and would have at its command Rs. 1,000 crore ($26 million) to start with. Kapur sounded out a television reality show that would identify and reward innovation.

Unlike Dasgupta, I think there is much to laud about jugaad, especially in a country like India, but does that need to be fostered by an external agency such as the council? That such an agency should be a government initiative makes it even more troubling.

If you consider the examples cited by the Wharton professors (Cappelli, Harbir Singh, Jitendra Singh and Useem) jugaad may not even have been studied adequately. The authors cite Bharti Airtel, Hindustan Unilever and ICICI Bank as examples when jugaad of far higher magnitude has been engineered by smaller companies and indeed by “every housewife, farmer, transporter, trader and industrialist,” as Aiyar says.

Innovation, as we can understand it, is something that emerges from a certain context, and even a certain need. For example, jugaad in socialist India meant creatively getting around archaic regulations and red tape. In today’s world, it might mean competing with large global corporations. I doubt the National Innovation Council or any such agency could have created a company like Micromax, for example, whose jugaad lay in an intense desire to outdo market leaders like Nokia.

What did Micromax do? It gave Nokia and the likes a run for their money by coming up with bargain basement prices (think bottom of the pyramid) and by designing products innovation labs at Nokia or for that matter all other global players, couldn’t even dream of. The global players couldn’t understand why on earth Indians would demand, or even buy, phones with dual SIM cards. It was unheard of anywhere else in the world. But Micromax better understood the Indian consumer and was first on to it. Similarly, it recognized the huge importance of longer battery life in a nation whose many villages never get power and whose towns are perennially short of power. Having fashioned its products, Micromax worked with cheap hardware and made-to-order software from nondescript Taiwanese manufacturers to trump its bigger rivals. That was jugaad too.

To my mind, Jugaad is too well and thriving in this country for the government to have stepped in.