Getting to Mars through ‘jugaad’

India’s Mars mission was made possible by less expensive engineering talent willing to work round the clock and the use of ingenious improvisation to cope with resource constraints

October 08, 2014 01:32 am | Updated October 18, 2016 01:42 pm IST

INNOVATIVE FIX: ISRO built the final model of the orbiter from the start instead of building a series of iterative models, as NASA does. Picture shows scientists and engineers working on the Mars Orbiter vehicle in 2013 at ISRO’s satellite centre in Bangalore. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

INNOVATIVE FIX: ISRO built the final model of the orbiter from the start instead of building a series of iterative models, as NASA does. Picture shows scientists and engineers working on the Mars Orbiter vehicle in 2013 at ISRO’s satellite centre in Bangalore. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Ten months after its flawless launch on November 5, 2013, when India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) successfully entered orbit around Mars, most of the western world greeted the event with astonishment. A cartoon in the New York Times even went on to ridicule India’s effort to enter the global space elite — of the U.S., Europe and Russia — by symbolically referring to it with the image of a farmer, accompanied by a cow, knocking on the door of the elite space club. The newspaper has rightly apologised for its portrayal of India.

The country’s technological feat, accomplished two days after U.S.’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) project MAVEN orbiter reached the Red Planet, might well have some lessons to offer to other developed countries on the Indian style of innovative fix or ‘jugaad’ as they call it.

Lessons from India

What made it possible for India to become the first Asian nation to accomplish its Mars mission on its maiden attempt? What fundamental strength of the Indian way of getting things done, and approach to innovation, accounts for this achievement on a shoestring budget: only $74 million compared to NASA’s $671 million for the MAVEN project? What can NASA learn from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)? What can the mature developed economies of the world learn from what has been accomplished in the resource-constrained environment of an emerging economy?

A few months ago, I was invited to brief the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) project team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The NISAR team is working on a joint mission between NASA and ISRO to design and launch by 2020 a satellite with advanced radar imaging that will provide the capability for a unique space-based platform for long-term observations of the natural processes of the changing earth. The purpose of the briefing was to create awareness of cultural differences in thinking, communication, ways of working and management style that could potentially affect the success of this high-stakes bi-national undertaking.

At JPL, I met Alok Chatterjee, NISAR Mission Interface Manager and the main architect of this collaboration with India. He is also the man behind the earlier successful NASA-ISRO collaboration on the Chandrayaan-1 mission, and also helped set up JPL support on trajectory, navigation and manoeuvre validation and deep space coverage for ISRO’s MOM mission. He had also worked at ISRO for ten years before joining NASA/JPL.

Mr. Chatterjee and I had the opportunity to discuss at length differences in how projects are planned and carried out in India and the U.S., with special reference to ISRO and NASA/JPL, and how to make such project collaborations successful. With the well-documented story of the parallel launching of MOM and MAVEN the previous November, we had a high-profile case in point for a fundamental aspect of the Indian mindset that needs to be understood, appreciated and negotiated on a daily basis by all those who work with Indian partners and counterparts. This approach and way of thinking is superbly captured by India’s art of ingenious improvisation: jugaad.

A double-edged sword

Jugaad has come to refer to a habit of mind, born out of historical scarcity and an environment of uncertainty, which emphasises ad hoc improvisation and flexibility as a way of getting things done. Jugaad means different things in different contexts, but it’s fundamentally the art of “making things work” in the immediate present circumstances, without necessarily being concerned about long-term sustainability or systemic impacts. Jugaad enables people to come up with quick, innovative and low-cost ways of solving problems, and to make something works even when conventional wisdom says it isn’t possible. It’s a philosophy that is at the heart of Indian entrepreneurial energy and optimism.

There are myriad examples of jugaad in action in India at the level of everyday work style as well as fundamental attitude and belief. What each reveals is that in the Indian environment, flexibility and “playing it by ear” is not only habitual, and often a matter of necessity, but is considered a strength rather than a weakness. Historically, under feudalism, colonialism and — later on — the “bureaucracy raj” of the first 40 years of independent India, the ability to work around the system, to improvise and to circumvent the rules, was often required for any kind of success.

Of course, jugaad is a double-edged sword. Social commentators and management theorists in India line up on opposite sides of an ongoing and heated national debate about the pros and cons of the jugaad approach. For some, jugaad is “an Indian commodity ripe for export,” while for others it’s an attitude that can mean choosing expediency over long-term effectiveness.

It’s not surprising then to see Indian commentary on the Mars Orbiter Mission phrased in terms of jugaad. But for Mr. Chatterjee, “Jugaad is the Indian approach of getting the maximum out of spending the least amount of resources, including time. And while jugaad cannot defy the laws of physics in getting a complex space mission like MOM accomplished, it is definitely a time-tested approach that has proved applicable to processes for achieving the mission’s accelerated goals.”

India’s “space venture on a shoestring” was thus made possible not only by less expensive engineering talent willing to work around the clock, but also by using ingenious improvisation to cope successfully with resource constraints and exceptionally tight timelines. ISRO built the final model of the orbiter from the start instead of building a series of iterative models, as NASA does. They limited the number of ground tests. They used components and building blocks from earlier and concurrent missions. They also circumvented the lack of a rocket powerful enough to launch the satellite directly out of the earth’s gravitational pull by having the satellite orbit the earth for a month to build up enough speed to break free from the earth’s gravitational pull.

Right now, in the afterglow of India’s space age triumph, the strengths of the jugaad philosophy seem vindicated. But had the MOM story ended differently, in failure, as have 30 out of the 51 attempts the world has made to reach Mars, the talk in India today would be far different from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hailing of the mission as “a shining symbol of what we are capable of as a nation.” There would be questioning of whether the national genius for low-cost improvised innovation and ingenious workaround solutions — jugaad — is indeed the key to a successful future.

(Karine Schomer is President of Change Management Consulting & Training.)

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