Vaccinate all to save auto sector, says Bullet Man RL Ravichandran

by Murali Gopalan 19 Apr 2021

Senior auto industry professional, RL Ravichandran, is alarmed by the rapidly rising Covid-19 infections across the country and believes this could have serious implications for the auto sector if the problem is not addressed quickly. 

He says it is “suicidal” to ignore an industry that contributes to a significant part of manufacturing GDP and is one of the key pillars of the Indian economy. RLR, as he is better known in industry circles (he was also called the Bullet Man during his tenure as CEO of Royal Enfield), is of the view that Maharashtra as the epicentre of the pandemic is the one that needs top priority even as  many other States are also following suit in reporting high infection tallies. 

According to him, if even more stringent lockdowns were to be imposed in Maharashtra, it would wreak havoc across the automotive supply chain. “The State is a critical supply hub for many auto companies and just cannot afford to go belly-up,” says RLR. Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad and Nagpur are clearly “high Corona centres, which need help in a hurry and are already being weighed down by shortage of beds, oxygen cylinders and vaccines. 

“The only medical protection we have on hand is vaccination besides 100 percent adherence to Covid protocol,” he says. What the Centre must do now is to improve substantial availability of vaccines — both Covishield and Covaxin — while paving the way for an early entry of Sputnik and other vaccine options. 

The next step, continues RLR, is to identify the “largest spreading towns” on priority and, more importantly, ensure that politicians are not involved in this exercise. On the contrary, it is best to have a CEO entrusted with the responsibility of vaccinating the entire country as top priority.

“He could be designated Chief Vaccination officer. No one will have the authority to bypass his orders including the Prime Minister. His ultimate boss is the President of India,” says RLR. The targeted population of 100 crore can hopefully be vaccinated in 180 days which means that India will be in a better place, with herd immunity, starting January 2022.  

“This person should have unrestricted power with a target to vaccinate 70 percent of the population in large towns with high caseloads,” elaborates RLR. The best way to go about doing this is to seek help from the public and private sectors so that there is huge infrastructure in place to carry out this marathon task. 

Private sector can deliver the goods
“We have big names like the Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis, Bajaj, Hero, Maruti, TVS, Honda, Leyland, Airtel, ICICI, HDFC, LIC, IOC, ICF, NTPC, Railways and a host of others,” he says. They can all be roped in with one mission, which is to jab the vast Indian population in quick time.

“We should be asking all corporates to tap into their CSR funds in order to adequately spread the vaccination drive. Apart from this, use ambulances, cars, trucks, trains and convert all of them into air-conditioned vaccination centres while ensuring that they are sufficiently equipped with doctors and nurses,” says RLR.

As he explains, all manufacturing units which have tie-ups with hospitals should vaccinate everyone in their employ to contain any possible spread within the plant. Additionally, it is as important to target drivers, servants, cooks, cleaners, plumbers, electricians, civic staff and so on who can be vaccinated on displaying their Aadhaar card.

Beyond this, it is critical to ensure that every pharmaceutical company is given the formula to create the vaccination medicine. They can convert 50 percent of their capacity to make vaccines and this can be overseen/approved by a “knowledgeable” virology governing council. 

“Pay royalty per vial to the original inventors. By taking this route, you can increase production,” says RLR while drawing an analogy to penicillin where there are at least 1,000 brands prevalent in the market today. For now, it is absolutely imperative for the Centre to fund the efforts of Bharat Biotech and Serum Institute to ramp up production to ensure millions of Covaxin and Covishield doses per day. 

“Likewise, help out Dr Reddy’s in its effort with Sputnik and explore Israel’s development of nasal drops. The objective is to fight Carona on a war footing and fast track the effort,” says RLR. Ideally, create testing equipment to gauge Covid-positive cases in 30 minutes using test strips. “Find the solution and fund this too,” he says.

Clearly, in this backdrop, there is no question of exporting vaccines any longer at a time when the population is virtually gasping for survival. As he puts it, there should be no exports till December 31 this year except to SAARC countries but even this should be rationed and confined to five per cent of production.

Vax populi 

According to RLR, it is as important to do away with age restrictions as is the case right now where only those over 45 are allowed to be vaccinated. This is happening despite the fact that it is the younger population who are the spreaders. More worryingly, a whole lot of youngsters are being admitted for Covid-related complications, which is only increasing the burden on hospitals. “Vaccinate everyone except those who are 12 and below,” he adds.

Beyond Maharashtra, cases are rising in Chennai, Coimbatore, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi and Kolkata but not in small towns at least for now. Kerala and Punjab are two prominent states which are reeling from rising infections. “The daily target in Maharashtra, as a case study, should ideally be the total injectable age of over 12 years divided by 30 days,” says RLR. 

Refusal by the public to accept a jab will mean that they face the risk of losing their Aadhaar credentials. “No jab means no freebies. No ration, no Aadhaar,” he reiterates. While this may sound harsh and dictatorial, it is his view that there is really no alternative when it comes to coping with a serious medical emergency that can snuff out tens of thousands of lives. 

For someone who has spent decades in the two-wheeler industry, which in addition to Royal Enfield has included senior level marketing stints at TVS Motor and Bajaj Auto, RLR reminds you that he is more than familiar with the Indian landscape. “Just stand at any road of a town, village or city and you can see people on bikes, scooters or in autorickshaws travelling to make a living for their family. They have to work to earn their daily bread,” he says. 

The underlying message is that it is these youngsters who should be vaccinated first since they are the support pillars for their families. Further, two-thirds of India is under 35 years old unlike the West or Japan where the average age is a lot higher and the population is “largely older by percentage”. 

In a way, serious damage has already been done in the form of massive election rallies in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam but the time has now come to stop all religious meetings, celebrations and group gatherings. 

RLR agrees with the move of many state governments to impose lockdowns where people are not allowed to go out between 8 pm and 7 am except for essential services. A lot of these can actually be door-delivered and this is where the delivery boys can get a helping hand from their employers by way of easy bank loans.

“There is no point having meaningless lockdowns which will do nothing but kill the economy. However, with some of the suggestions outlined above, I am convinced that a huge crisis can be averted. By the end of the day, the most important thing for all of us is to be alive and welcome 2022 with a big smile,” signs off RLR.

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