On a recent flight from Delhi to Hyderabad, the flight attendant handed me a bottle of water. This was a full-service flight, and like all airlines trying to make the best of both worlds, this airline’s dinner too was watered-down. The bottle of water was part of it. As I tried to open the bottle, however, I was nearly poked by a hard, pointer sliver of the plastic that broke off and stood projected from the neck (see picture). I was grateful that it was not my daughter who was opening the bottle.
But the bottle raises many questions about Indian innovation. The state of the packaging industry in India is symbolic of the state of Indian innovation in general, and the bottleneck is both a literal and a metaphorical commentary on the culture of innovation in India.
A few weeks ago, I bought a bottle of cough syrup, and try as I might, I could not open the plastic bottle because the metal cap kept turning with the metal band underneath that is supposed to be fixed to the bottle.
As every Indian knows, this is a common occurrence and is, in fact, a decades-old problem. As a kid, I saw my parents struggle with the same problem when they opened medicine bottles for the family. Why has the Indian packaging industry not innovated for decades? And these medicines are made by international pharmaceutical giants who would not even think of selling drugs in this packaging in Europe or America. True, we have seen more tetrapaks and better bottles in India in recent years, but if we have truly innovated, we should not be seeing the kinds of bottles that I am referring to—the water bottle on the plane or the cough syrup bottle.
So how do you open the cough syrup bottle? Well, we Indians are very resourceful. In fact, jugaad, resourcefulness, has been proudly promoted as a national characteristic of India and the foundation of the Indian way of innovation. So like my parents, like me, we Indians look for the kitchen knife or a similar instrument and quickly cut the metal band at each place it is attached to the cap.
Voilà! The cap can now be untwisted, and the medicine becomes available.
At the same time however, unwittingly, our jugaad has killed innovation. Because we can open the bottle with a knife, we don’t pressurize the drug company to make a better bottle, and of course, the consequence is that there is no shift in market demand to another drug maker who uses better bottles. Result: drug makers continue to use same types of un-openable bottles for decades; no innovation.
Long live Jugaad! Death to innovation! We are a nation of jugaadis with no innovation.