R Srinivasan

Sticks, stones, carrots and Covid vaccination

R Srinivasan | Updated on November 10, 2021

The nudge Both doses of Covid vaccines are mandatory for travel on Mumbai suburban trains   -  EMMANUAL YOGINI

We need both incentives and disincentives to make the vaccine drive a success

This column is being written in Mumbai, a city where I spent nearly two decades of my working life but am visiting after a gap of a few years. I am a huge fan of Mumbai’s public transport systems. Both the bus service — aptly named BEST — and the suburban rail network are the best and most efficient in the country, while the ubiquitous ‘kaali-peeli’ — the black and yellow taxi — remains the only cruising, metered urban taxi system which works. And is also affordable.

So when I had to travel to Nariman Point at the southern tip of Mumbai from my distant suburban lodgings for an appointment, I naturally headed to the suburban train station.

That is because even at the best of times, the suburban train was the only system which gave you an accurate estimate of travel time between Point A and Point B in the city. By road — regardless of whether you were in a bus, a black-and-yellow or your Mercedes — there was no predicting the travel time because of traffic flows. Now, with most of the city dug up for either the metro or the proposed coastal road, it has become an even bigger game of chance.

Maximum city

I was surprised to find that one could only buy a ticket to travel on the suburban network if one could produce a vaccination certificate, that too with the final dose having been taken at least 14 days prior. And like everything else in Mumbai, the system may have been creaky and slow, but it actually worked. My certificate was checked before I could board the train.

The bigger shock, however, was on the train itself. For a bulk of the long stretch from my suburban station to the Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, I was the sole passenger in the first class compartment. In all my years in Mumbai, this had never happened before. Not on holidays or bandh days, not during even really bad rain days and not on the last or first services, both of which I had used frequently, given my peculiar work timings as a journalist. But this time, the train was nearly empty, heading towards arguably India’s densest office agglomeration and an area where the State government’s principal offices are also located. On a working day and during office hours to boot.

Was it because of the lockdown-induced pivot to work-from-home in most organisations? Not quite. Most offices, both public and private, have resumed at least partial work from office, as has the government. The roads were also clogged with traffic. It was only the train service which was seeing thin crowds.

Mumbai’s suburban train system used to carry 80 lakh passengers per day during normal times. Currently, the ridership is hovering around 30-32 lakh per day. So what accounts for the missing five million passengers? There is of course the devastation wreaked by the pandemic, which has shuttered tens of thousands of small businesses. There is also work from home, but that applies only to the creamy layer of Mumbai’s salaried workforce who have both devices and network access.

The rest, I believe, has been because of the vaccination requirement. Despite the impressive numbers achieved under India’s vaccination drive — over one billion doses delivered and around 70 per cent of the eligible population covered with the first dose — we are still a long way off from total coverage.

Overall, less than 30 per cent of the adult population has been fully vaccinated. Mumbai, the city that never stops — indeed, cannot stop — is one of the best performers among large metros, with 40 per cent of the adult population (officially around 92.4 million) had been fully vaccinated with two doses.

But 60 per cent is a very large number. And closing that gap may prove more difficult. For one, the fear of Covid which prompted many to take the first dose appears to have evaporated. There is also considerable vaccine hesitancy, particularly among the poor. And then there are those Mumbaikars who have already fallen through the cracks — itinerants and the homeless.

Vaccine hesitancy is going to be a real hurdle in achieving universal coverage. Without universal coverage, there is always the fear of a fresh resurgence or a new variant, or worse, of the disease becoming endemic in India. Pushing the hesitaters into accepting the vaccine will now require a new approach. Simply making it available, or exhorting the masses through mass media or public announcements, won’t be enough.

Thane Corporation’s move

Which is why a recent move by the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) caught my eye. Thane is Maharashtra’s largest district but the eponymous city, across the creek from Mumbai, is practically a suburb of the maximum city. On Monday (November 8), the TMC decreed that those of its employees who had not received at least one dose of the vaccine will not be paid salaries. For good measure, the order also said that those who had taken one dose but failed to take the second within the stipulated period (a worryingly large number) will also not be paid.

Unions and activists are already up in arms. But the TMC move is a good thing. We need disincentives to ensure that there is a real cost attached to behaviour which puts the society at large at risk. The railway travel requirement is one such. Without the ability to commute, a lot of Mumbaikars will lose their livelihood. The ‘no salary’ order is another, something which other governments as well as private employers can emulate.

At the same time, we also need incentives. A free suburban travel pass for a month or a quarter with the second dose can be a great incentive to comply.

Elsewhere, we could look at travel or subsidy (DBT or PDS-linked) incentives. These have the dual benefit of being both welfare measures as well as growth boosters. The more the number of people who can get back to work (remember, 90 per cent of the workforce is in the informal sector), the better it is for the economy.

A combined carrot and stick policy (most countries which have achieved high vaccination have used incentives, if not disincentives) is required, along with a massive education drive to now reach the goal of full vaccination for all. And the more the number of people fully vaccinated, the better it is for society. After all, as UN Secretary General Antonio Gutierres pointed out, “No one is safe until all are safe.”


The writer is a senior journalist

Published on November 10, 2021

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