Is it a motorbike? A rickshaw? A tractor? The jugaad is a bit of everything. The Supreme Court wants them off the roads, but patrons of these tributes to “rural engineering and innovation” say the vehicles aren’t going anywhere in a hurry
It’s a curious contraption – the body of a cycle cart, the tyres of a motorbike, the handle of a Bajaj Chetak. Rajesh, 19, the driver of this sphinx-like three-wheeler, glides through the traffic outside Azadpur mandi, Asia’s biggest wholesale market in north Delhi, and heads in through the gates. In the next 10 minutes, at least four such vehicles enter the mandi, in full view of the police.
Officially, these make-shift vehicles, or jugaads, are illegal in India. In 2012, the Supreme Court, while taking suo motu cognisance of the fact that they plied on the roads, asked all states to apprise the court of the steps taken to ensure these vehicles went off the roads.
In August this year, Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways Pon Radhakrishnan, in a written reply to the Lok Sabha, said: “Jugaads do not conform to the specifications of a Motor Vehicle under the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988.”
There is no reliable count of the number of jugaads in the Delhi-NCR region, but going simply by their frequency on the roads, there is no stopping them anytime soon. Across small towns and villages of states such as UP, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and the fringes of the national capital, the jugaad is what keeps the rural economy on the move, being the cheapest means of transporting people, livestock and farm produce.
There are at least 70 such vehicles in Azadpur mandi alone, ferrying vegetables and other wholesale items every day, says 53-year-old onion trader Raghu Sharma. “These vehicles are the quickest, cheapest and the most efficient way to transport goods to markets and weekly bazaars,” he says.
The concept of “jugaad” is inherently Indian with the word even finding a place in the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary in January this year. It defines jugaad as a “vehicle made from different parts of other vehicles and used for carrying people, goods, etc., that is usually open at the front and the back and often not very safe to drive”.
And unsafe it is. With no number-plate, pollution control checks or insurance papers, and with particularly dicey brakes, the jugaads are a template for disaster, but patrons hold them up as a model for rural innovation and engineering, and swear by their utility. “These jugaads are in complete violation of the Central Motor Vehicles Rule, but even the police don’t stop them. Besides, they are being used by poor labourers whose livelihood depends on this,” says S P Singh, senior fellow at the Indian Federation of Transport Research. “Given their illegal nature, we don’t have a number of how many such vehicles are in use, but hundreds of them ply just in the Capital,” he says.
In Delhi, jugaads are mostly concentrated in residential colonies in the east and west of the Capital and are a regular feature at the weekly markets. It’s also the vehicle that links many of the farmers in the extended NCR region — in towns such as Meerut, Ghaziabad, Noida, Faridabad, Panipat, Gurgaon, Rohtak and Sonepat – to their markets in Delhi.
At his cycle repair shop in the Sector 9 market in Noida, Jagdev Prasad makes wooden carts for jugaads. “We just make the parts; there are six garages in east Delhi which assemble the jugaads,” he says.
The spares, he says, come from the junk market in west Delhi’s Mayapuri, one of Asia’s largest junk markets, which houses parts of every vehicle – from bicycle to trains. Prasad also mentions one “Ganja Ustaad”, “a jugaad master” who has a garage in a village in east Delhi.
Ganja Ustaad is known specifically as the man “who makes scooteris”. Down a narrow lane that has open drains on both sides, Ganja Ustaad’s workshop lies between two haphazardly built two-storey buildings. With a blue plastic sheet for a door and no board to mark its presence, the workshop is easy to miss, and that seems to be the idea.
“Yeh illegal hai, isliye koi board nahi lagaya (This is illegal, that’s why we don’t have a board),” says Ganja Ustaad’s 19-year-old son. Pull the plastic sheet aside and the world of vehicles and spare parts reveals itself. Three jugaads in various stages of readiness lie in the courtyard, scooter spare parts are placed in heaps on one side and a jugaad cooler made from parts of a washing machine provides much needed relief from the heat.
Soon, Ganja Ustaad enters the courtyard with a pile of Bajaj Chetak handles he has “sourced” from Mayapuri. For close to 22 years, the 42-year-old ran a repair shop for bicycles and jugaads, but five years ago, “seeing the demand for jugaad”, converted his shop into a full-fledged garage for these vehicles. “As my business began growing, almost simultaneously, I started losing hair on my head. So everyone started calling me Ganja Ustaad,” he smiles.
As he begins to fix a motor — a single- cylinder water-cooled Petteroid engine — to one of the vehicles, he says, “Yeh made-to-order bante hain (These are made to order). Anything goes — Chetak handle, Hero Honda tyres, Pulsar engine, kuch bhi.” The tyres and engine determine the vehicle’s price, that sells for anything between Rs 12,000 and 50,000. The father and son take about three days to assemble a vehicle and sell about four in a month.
“We source the wooden carts from markets in Noida and Ghaziabad and the iron carts, for heavy loads, from suppliers in west Delhi,” says Ganja Ustaad. As his son pulls out a “chalau handle” from the scrap, Ustaad, with practised ease, fixes the handle on to a cycle frame, checks the brakes and clutch and declares them “fit”. His son, meanwhile, places an engine under the wooden cart and shuffles the red and yellow colour wires to finally get the engine going. The fuel tank, which has been “locally sourced”, is placed on the left side of the cart. “This can take about five litres of diesel and has a mileage of 20 km,” says Ganja Ustaad.
His son dashes out of the garage and calls out to Prahlad, one of the prospective buyers, for his “test drive”. “This is the most important part. If the customer doesn’t like the product, our effort goes waste,” says the 19-year-old. Prahlad makes his way to the workshop, climbs onto the seat for the test drive, starts the engine and whooshes past a group of about 15 people who have turned up to watch the proceedings. Back after five minutes, he struggles to stop the vehicle at the garage, but looks happy. “Sahi gaadi hai, ustaad (Good vehicle),” he tells Ganja Ustaad and hands him Rs 15,000.
So are the brakes on these vehicle a recurring problem? “See, the parts come from old vehicles and we try to fix them to the best of our ability, but there are problems in the brake,” admits Ganja Ustaad.In fact, ineffective brakes have been responsible for most of the accidents involving jugaad vehicles. As part of research for his 2013 book, Innovation and a Global Knowledge Economy in India, Thomas Birtchnell, a lecturer of Sustainable Communities at University of Wollongong, Australia, found that of 2,139 cases of road traffic casualties in 72 hours at J N Medical College hospital in Aligarh, 13.88 per cent of pedestrian casualties were due to jugaad.
Mention the illegal nature of the vehicle to Ganja Ustaad and he snaps: “It gets sorted once we pay Rs 200-500 to the police.”
The complicity of the police is visible at almost all traffic signals where these jugaads ply. “The Supreme Court orders are being openly flouted, by those who ply these jugaads and those who enforce the law, says S P Singh.