Opinions

A second lockdown is pointless if we don't change our methods, says Rajiv Bajaj, MD, Bajaj Auto


‘s Managing Director, Rajiv Bajaj, rallies against a meaningless lockdown and in an interview with ET Now, raises questions of his own – about the second wave and how the government plans to handle it if its methods aren’t evolving.


Why do you feel the need to pose these questions? Why are you worried about another round of lockdowns in Maharashtra, at a time when Covid numbers are surging?
I am worried simply because I am speaking from Pune – which is one of the country’s hotbeds of COVID-19 – and where we are apparently staring at the prospect of another lockdown. Although we do not know much about the exact nature of this proposed lockdown, we all do have to ask ourselves what we are going to do differently, so that we don’t end up with the same result that we’ve seen over the last 12 months? While reflecting on the eight questions I’ve realised that we need the answers to these so that we can go from unfounded reactionary fear to responding to unshakeable facts.

You asked about actual incremental mortality. How do you calculate incremental mortality? What we do know is a 169,000 Indians have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Is that number not scary enough to justify taking whatever means possible to save lives?
Well, as far as I know, pre-pandemic it is said that 7.5 lakh people die in India every month for varied reasons, and as far as COVID-19 is concerned the count has been about 1,69,000 over the last 13 months – an average of 13,000 people a month – now, what this suggests is that at maximum, incremental deaths are 13,000, which means every month instead of 7.5 lakh people, 7.63 lakh people have died.

However, when I speak with local doctors in Pune they insist that 70% of such deaths are people who had various comorbidities – ranging from obesity, hypertension and diabetes. This has been talked about ad nauseam, which means that the maximum incremental death is not just under 2%, it is probably well under 1%, closer to 0.5%. This seems to mirror exactly what Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said in an interview – as far as Delhi is concerned, he finds that the mortality rate is a third of what he saw in previous months during the first wave or the second wave, as he called it. Now I am not for a moment suggesting that every life is not precious. As someone said, one death is a tragedy but a million deaths are a statistic. Every life is important. But, if we have another hard lockdown like we did last year, we know the repercussions, we know the number of people who needed medical assistance but couldn’t get it. Those are also lives lost. So, that’s why this question is important, for me. What is the actual incremental mortality, whether at the national level or specifically at the state level, and how does that compare with people who perhaps otherwise lost their lives because they could not get help.

The question then becomes, how would this change outcome of what the government decides to do? What about the fact that a majority of our cases are asymptomatic?
Absolutely, I agree with you. So, the case severity profile seems to suggest that almost 95% people are either asymptomatic and test positive as a result of testing and tracing or are mildly symptomatic and can be treated at home. In fact, I would like to mention that I take my hat off to our Chief Minister and those in the administration here – like BMC Commissioner Mr Chahal – who have been extremely proactive and extremely transparent.

But, having said that, if the vast majority are indeed asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, then should one really impose a lockdown on the 130 million odd people of Maharashtra who will suffer because they will lose their jobs, their income and sometimes even their sanity.

Let us look at the specific issue of hospital capacity that has been talked about so much, which is my third question. Local doctors over here suggest that a large number of hospital admissions are to do with the VIP syndrome – of which I am equally guilty.

This happens every day in the hospitals of Pune, there are people admitted out of fear, there are people that are admitted out of sheer convenience, when all of them could actually be treated at home and frankly, I have to make the point that some hospitals are not exactly complaining about the patients.

For instance, a close friend’s domestic staff needed to be hospitalised last week, and was kept on in the hospital for much longer than required. This gentleman was in the general ward and the bill at the end of his treatment was Rs 4.36 lakhs. So, not all hospitals have a problem with this. That makes me curious about what the exact criteria for hospitalisation is and I’d like to ask or suggest that maybe if hospitals are more than 70% full, perhaps we might need to randomly audit them and see whether all the people who are there really do need to be there.

Let me tell you why, assume for a moment that my anxiety is unfounded and let us say everybody that is in the hospital causing a shortfall needs to be there, then perhaps the government needs to tell us that if they lockdown for 14 days, how they will achieve increased medical infrastructure capacity, which they could not achieve in 14 months?

Most importantly, the staff – trained doctors, nurses and paramedics – would have to be replenished, tired from the copious amounts of extra work they have been doing for the past year and half.

Are you saying that in the year since COVID-19 hit, not enough has been done to prepare for a second wave, and we’re worse than when we started?
Well that is part of it, but what I am also trying to suggest is to do something different. Someone said, insanity is when you do the same thing again and again and expect a different result. And I am asking my government – fortunately I can ask this of my state government because all my interactions with them suggest that they are very open minded, very objective, they listen and they care – what is it that you are doing differently now, which will produce a different result.

We are talking about all the mutations of the virus. Sitting in Pune and Aurangabad I have seen all the mutations of the lockdown, as well. I have seen the 10-day lockdown. I have seen the seven-day lockdown. I have seen the weekend lockdown. I have seen the overnight lockdown. I would like the administration to share with me some information on this and tell me how effective those were and if they were not effective, then what is your reason to do more of the same all over again.

I want to know what concerns you have for Bajaj Auto facilities in Pune, right now? Are you facing the impact of the second wave? Are restrictions affecting you?
The short answer is that as of now, there are a lot of concerns and anxiety but there is no actual impact because nothing has changed. We are, apparently, awaiting a decision later in the week and before I answer your question let me say this that I don’t pretend to have the answers.

I started by saying that I have some questions and hopefully these are valid questions now, and as far as RT-PCR is concerned my perception is that we may have a cure that is almost worse than the disease, I mean, it seems to me a classic case of overregulation where we want to test everyone and deny the needy the ability to be tested.

Let me give you a specific example, in the office or in the factory or on the shop floor if a person is positive, that unit must be shutdown or the section must be shutdown and sanitised and then only work can start again. Now, I am unable to understand the simple thing that if someone feels unwell, am I suppose to shut down immediately? Because at that point of time he hasn’t been tested and I am not sure whether he/she is suffering from COVID-19 or just some flu. Thanks to what has been mandated right now – that every 15 days all employees must do the RT-PCR test – other people have taken a cue from that, asking for tests to go in and out of housing societies. That just increases the load on lab capacity and kit availability, meaning a person who is feeling unwell on the shop floor or in the office today will probably not get his result for the next 48 to 72 hours, putting them in a weird limbo. By the time the result comes and we shut down the place, others might’ve been infected.

Another important one you asked was what is the ability of the government to extend lockdown support, like western countries do? Over this weekend Bogota, Argentina, France, Germany have had different kinds of lockdowns? What is the model you propose?
No, not at all. You see, the nations that you name are all western countries with a very different immunity profile from that of India, which is much more like the ASEAN countries. You’d find a lot of answers if you looked at what Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia have done, I’m not suggesting that lockdown is right or wrong but that lockdown is a coin that has two sides – one’s locking people and the other’s providing real, tangible immediate support to the people you’ve locked down. Not just to big companies like Bajaj. Today, my partners in the UK – Triumph – and in Austria – KTM – have received significant direct support from their government. For example, 80-85% of wages of their employees have been compensated but I am not even asking for that I am asking the question on behalf of the millions of MSMEs and the so called informal sector, the little restaurants, the shops, the gyms, the spas and salons.

I think at the time of crises, more than any other time, our leaders should lead by example. I mean, you’re asking people to wear masks when your leaders are canvassing for elections without wearing masks half the time, you are asking people to distance when people were seen this morning dipping at the Kumbh Mela to which you are inviting people from all over the country. How can we have this kind of dysfunctional behaviour and then expect alignment in the country for a lockdown which is actually hurting the lives and livelihoods.

So then, should the people just take their own measures against the virus?

Here’s what I believe would be appropriate middle path, first off all, I have always said for the last one year: I am a layman, frankly, as far as the subject is concerned. I think all those who are deemed to be vulnerable either by age or because of co-morbidities, they should be secure, at home or in a safe place, where they can be conveniently housed.

This population, fortunately, is perhaps 5-10% of our total and hardly any of our working people fall into this category. Most of us are already working from home and at Bajaj, we have proactively moved towards work from home again because we are adults, we can think for ourselves and we do not want to cause trouble for ourselves and for our colleagues.

But when it comes to the rest of it, for example, the manufacturing industry where you cannot work from home. I want to give you specific context, the example of our plant at Aurangabad last year, about which so much misleading information has been put out. The plant was shut down on March 24, last year when we had announced a national lockdown and then the plant was given permission to start exactly a month later on April 24. After that, for six weeks – until June 6 – there wasn’t a single case at the plant. Why did the first case come then? Well, because the city was unlocked from June 1. You don’t have to take my word for it, you can see the interviews given by the collector of Aurangabad at that time, who said it happened because from June 1, the city was unlocked, the virus was spread in the city – not in paint shops and machine shops – it was brought to the plant from the city.

What I’m trying to say is that shutting down just the manufacturing industry and all such other MSMEs where people need to be onsite to work is not going to work because it simply has not worked and if at all we have to do it we should do it by looking at the East as a benchmark, not the West. But if we are going to benchmark the West then have some empathy for people and give them the kind of lockdown support that western countries are extending.

Reports suggest that the Maharashtra government is sitting with its top team and mulling a lockdown for 8-14 days, what kind of financial capacities do you think we have and how would they support the people you talk about?

We simply need to help people keep their nose above water, whether it means salaries, whether it means their rent support, whatever it may be. For instance, if two weeks ago I renewed licences for my shop, or bar or restaurant, and now the government is announcing a lockdown – a week later – almost as if it was premeditated, it creates ungodly amounts of chaos. So, whatever the government can subsidise/support, it should.

But, as I said before, it has to be direct, it has to be significant, it has to be immediate. All these big packages with lots of zeros at the end, nobody can figure out how and when they will trickle down, the people don’t have time for that.

A broad comment on how we are dealing with the second wave and the vast difference in how it is panning out in different parts of the country?

Well, first of all, full marks to the Maharashtra government for being as upfront as they have been. Having said that, you know my view on this, it is somewhat controversial. I believe that if mortality is indeed 0.5% of the world, and if 95% of people are indeed mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic then frankly I think we are moving towards herd immunity, perhaps not in the best way, but as we talked about it it has to be in terms of how hospitals are managing, in terms of how testing has been mandated, in terms of the appropriate behaviour for COVID-19, in terms of masks and distancing and how we can do better, both the people and the government.

Now where else can we do better? Obviously, with the vaccine distribution. Unfortunately, the popular perception is that for a year the people of this country have waited for a vaccine panacea and now what they are witnessing is vaccine politics. As you said, business as usual for politics. If politicians carry on business as usual, then yes, there is side to me which feels like saying: “why should all of us not carry on with our business, survive as usual?”

It is out of frustration and not irresponsibility that I say this; maybe it is time for some kind of a civil disobedience movement, you know, no individual or no individual organisation can do this but maybe it is time that associations like a Maratha chamber, like CII, FICCI, Assocham stood up and said something. It is time that CEOs of small and big companies stood up and said something. Why are people like us sitting in big chairs and earning fat salaries? More than any reason, it is because we are supposed to shepherd our flock when there is a difficult period, we are not supposed act like sheep in front of our government.



You’ve said that so far there hasn’t been an impact on your business and manufacturing capacities, but there is concern of a prolonged period of high infections and lockdown; do you think it will impact demand?

I don’t think I can answer your primary question simply because I do not know what the lockdown, if it happens, may hold for Bajaj. For example, will they allow plants to operate because they are outside the city limits or will they allow us to operate at 50% capacity or will they shut us down completely for 15 days? I don’t know. Similarly, in terms of dealerships, I hear of several states and cities where dealers are shut but I hear of others where they are open. So, again I do not know what is going to happen there and I am especially concerned about the suppliers who do not necessarily have the resources or the clout that OEMs do and I don’t know how they are going to manage their men and their material, so you know frankly, anything I say right now will be speculative. We have to wait and watch to see what the government decides and then respond.



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