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regular-article-logo Thursday, 22 February 2024

Jugaad: A way out of the economic crisis for a mobile studio operator in Digha Mohona

The word has even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as a flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources in an innovative way

Paromita Sen Published 06.08.23, 05:28 AM
A mobile photo studio at Digha Mohona. To go with story by Paromita Sen

A mobile photo studio at Digha Mohona. To go with story by Paromita Sen Pic by Paromita Sen

Digha Mohona is where fishing trawlers come to unload their catch. It is the mohona, or estuary, of the Champa river and a must-visit spot for tourists to the seaside resort of Digha in East Midnapore district. If one can tear oneself away from the baskets of fish, prawns, crab and squid on display at the market stalls — there is a whole cottage industry of makeshift stalls that cook for you the buy of the day — there is a lovely bit of flat beach right behind. The beach here is not as crowded as the beaches at Digha and New Digha and accessible round the clock.

At 8.30 on a weekday morning, the beach is peppered with families enjoying the sea, a handful of food shacks, a trio of horses for rent and about five cycle vans. Now, cycle vans loaded with green coconuts are a common sight on beaches all over the country but the ones here boast of biggish trunks, ones even bigger than your grandmother’s bridal trunk. A cursory peek into one of them — whose tops are uniformly raised a quarter of the way and has an attendant fiddling around with something inside —
reveals a laptop.

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Santosh Gupta, who is the owner of the trunk, explains that these vans are actually mobile photo studios. There is a printer rigged up inside as well as multiple charging points for camera batteries, all of it powered by multiple car batteries placed
discreetly behind the trunk.

Men armed with Polaroid cameras that print instant photos can be found near the most famous monuments in India and there are those who run across to a nearby studio to get you a print in half an hour, but this contraption or jugaad is rather novel — a mobile studio on the beach.

Jugaad is a colloquial Hindi word, it is also used in Urdu and Punjabi. A literal English translation is impossible, but suffice to say the broad meaning is hack, workaround or quick fix.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous examples of jugaad in this country are of various vehicles thrown together — the vaano or cycle van powered by an irrigation pump motor and the bhatbhati or rowboat powered by a makeshift engine in Bengal, the phatphatiya or Harley Davidson motorcycle-powered rickshaws once common in Old Delhi, the meen body vandi or van with a heavy-duty suspension powered by a Yezdi or Bullet motor used to transport fish in Tamil Nadu, the chakkda rickshaw or a motorcycle turned into a three-wheeler with truck wheels in Gujarat. In fact, such a thrown-together vehicle is actually named jugaad in Punjab.

In the last few years, jugaad has also come to mean a frugal innovation in management-speak. Interest in the concept was sparked by the 2012 book Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth by Navi Radjou, Jaideep Prabhu and Simone Ahuja. Radjou is an innovation and leadership strategist based in Palo Alto in the US but born in Pondicherry, Prabhu is a professor at the Judge Business School Cambridge University in the UK while Ahuja is the founder of Blood Orange Media, headquartered in Minneapolis, US.

The word has even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as a flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources in an innovative way.

Perhaps the most famous instance of Indian jugaad, also the example with which Jugaad Innovation begins, is the Mitticool refrigerator that works without electricity and was developed by potter Mansukh Prajapati in a Gujarat village. Such was its popularity that Prajapati had to train the under educated women in his village so that he could scale up his business. Now, you can find clayware products manufactured by Mitticool on Amazon.

At the Digha beach, a careful look reveals multiple men with cameras, both DSLRs and point-and-shoots, working the beach. Everyone on the beach is taking photos but the tourists are all using mobile phones.

A smooth-talking, DSLR-carrying young man convinces a large family group to get framed for posterity. Another man with a smaller camera joins him and soon the group is split up with each of them putting to good use the how-to-pose videos that can be found on Instagram.

Next, everyone crowds around Gupta while he gives them a review. Shots are chosen, argued over and ordered. The five-by-seven photographs cost Rs 30 if printed on normal paper and Rs 40 on photographic paper. Predictably, Gupta pushes
for the photographic paper and the total comes to Rs 1,600 for 40 prints. The family group puts together Rs 100 and Rs 200 notes to make up the amount but if they couldn’t, Gupta has UPI payment too.

The man whose ancestral village lies in Saran district in Bihar — and who speaks fluent English, Hindi and Bengali — says he has been in this business for the last 10 years. He doesn’t, however, know who came up with the jugaad first. What he does know is that there are 10 such vans at the mohona and each has seven people attached to it — one man who does the printing and six are photographers. The man with the laptop is the one who invests and makes the most money (two-thirds of the profit is his, while one-third goes to the photographer). Gupta says all the equipment was bought by him, including the cameras, batteries and the very bags the cameras are carried in. The bags are very important, they provide a measure of protection from the corroding sea breeze and the humidity. As do the trunks that can be shut when there is a drizzle, a daily happening during the monsoon.

Gupta’s life too is one long jugaad, of having to make do with the cards he was dealt. Born in Kalyani, West Bengal, to jute mill worker Janardan Shaw and his wife, he was informally adopted by his mamas — the reason his surname is Gupta — when the mill shut down. After graduating in commerce, he found no jobs so he did a course in computers that landed him a data entry operator’s job — he had to register trawlers at the new fishing port at Digha Mohona. Once all the trawlers were registered, which took five years, Gupta found himself without a job. That was when he started the mobile photo booth. In the meantime, he had moved his family to Digha — which is much cheaper than Calcutta, he points out.

He operates the booth from 6 to 10 in the morning. He holds a second job as a storekeeper for a godown from noon to 6 in the evening, keeping stock of fish coming in and directing how much will go where. From the phone calls that come in, one suspects he is also a land broker. He cobbles together enough to get by, he says, though he is worried about putting his children through college. Neither of them is remotely interested in his jugaad business. Hopefully, they have inherited his jugaadu mindset and will do well in management, where there is a lot of demand for flexible innovation. As Jaideep Prabhu says in his book, jugaad is an important way out of the current economic crisis.

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