Covid-19: Govt’s Plan B to keep working during lockdown

It was an office memorandum with an innocuous title: “Preventive measures to contain the spread of Covid-19”. In reality, though, it was a critical notice — of curtailed but effective government functioning that applied not just to ministries but all public-sector undertakings and autonomous institutions.

And it detailed the government’s Plan B to keep the business of governance going.

In these uncharted times, when whole communities have been shut down and the Union government itself is hunkering down, the country’s leaders and bureaucrats are not flying blind in the fog of a globally unprecedented pandemic.

In running a nation of its size and to remain effectively in charge, while enforcing social distancing within the government, the Centre is working off the plan.

The plan, which enforces social distancing, was vetted at multiple levels and signed off on by the two top bureaucratic establishments, the Cabinet secretariat and the ministry of personnel, according to details provided by at least five government officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.

HT reviewed some routine tasks, such as agenda-setting and approvals, performed during normal times by departments, but more onerously now, to gauge how a heavy-set central government is still running its business.

The “highest priority” in day-to-day administration is to “assist states”, keep some of the largest federally funded “national programmes running” and run all divisions involved in financial decision-making, one official said. Steering schemes, such as PM-KISAN in agriculture (a cash transfer scheme aimed at farmers) and metro rail under urban development ministry, has been classified as “essential”.

As the lockdown became certain, the National Informatics Centre worked urgently to configure software and fix remote access to dedicated management information softwares (MIS), the massive IT platforms that run the largest national schemes, such as PM KISAN, direct benefit transfers, subsidies and national pensions. Lockdown or no lockdown, people dependant on such payments have to get them. The remote access is through internet connections from state-owned telecom firms, but private-owned leased lines have been kept as back-up, a second official said.

In India’s federal structure, subjects are divided by the country’s Constitution to be divided between states and the Centre. It’s the official work on the long list of “central subjects”, from aviation to national security, that various ministries and their line departments must keep going.

Yet, in important fields with a dual Centre-state jurisdiction, such as agriculture and health, Centre’s role is no less critical.

“Information during this critical time may be imperfect. Working hours may be longer. Staff may be less. But the government is not flying blind,” a third official, at the additional secretary-level, said.

The first step in devising the plan mentioned above, which was given shape starting March 14-15, was to prune the “unessential” or “non-critical”, a fourth official said. One example is tasks that don’t involve financial approval. Second, each ministry communicated its own plans to the Cabinet Secretariat; these were vetted several times before the final roadmap was sent to the “highest levels” for approval, the second official said.

On March 20, the ministry of personnel (order no. “F.No. 11013/9/2014-Estt A-III), following up on two trial orders issued by it on March 17 and 19, asked a set of intermediate-level employees known as group B and C to be rostered in alternating batches.

This was the start of a trial in social distancing within the government. In that notice, all consultants, who provide critical inputs for decision-making and many of whom are retired bureaucrats, above the age of 60 (and therefore considered vulnerable to the disease), were asked to work from home.

Finally, came the definitive notice to all ministries, the Prime Minister’s Office and the National Informatics Centre, the government’s IT arm, was sent out from North Block on March 22. Sujata Chaturvedi, who is “additional secretary to the government of India”, signed off on it.

This was the Plan B.

It asked heads of departments to “draw up a roster of staff (all officers and employees, including consultants/contract and outsourced employees) who are required to render essential services within each department”. “They alone may be asked to attend office from 23rd March to 31st March, 2020”. What is considered “essential” was the discretion of each secretary of departments functioning under each Union minister, who was also required to approve it. The order did not apply to any employee on the Centre’s rolls tasked with any activity directly or indirectly related to fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

What the rest of India didn’t know at the time was that this notice would be followed by a similar “advisory” to all states through chief secretaries from the Centre. It is this advisory that became the basis of many states going into nearly simultaneous lockdowns till March 31, the federally determined cut-off date for the first phase of the shutdown, the third official said.

So, how has government day-to-day functioning changed and how are decisions being taken now in a rapidly alarming public-health scenario?

A mandatory daily task in all ministries, critical because it involves agenda-setting, decision-making and review, is a conference known as “senior officers’ meeting”. The jargon for it in ministries is SOM. Usually, it’s one of the first businesses in a ministry although it can be held any time of the day. Decisions taken there are passed down to line units and departments.

These meetings are usually called by the secretary or sometimes delegated to additional or special secretaries. One ministry usually has several departments under it. For example, the agriculture ministry also has the department of agri-research. The finance ministry has the departments of economic affairs and revenue, among others.

These meetings are taking place as usual but with some participants on video call, depending on who has been allotted “work from home”. In every room, entry gates and conference halls, sanitisers have been placed and it is mandatory to use them before any meeting.

A fifth official, at the joint secretary level, said he was dictating decisions and minutes of meetings to be “put up” on file over the phone for note-making and drafting. In normal times, he would summon the note-taker into his room.

The government already runs fully on e-governance platforms, but a crucial rule requires that all decisions are physically signed. This practice hasn’t changed because government memorandums (as decisions are formally known) mandatorily require the hand and seal of the competent authority according to central office rules.

“Functioning will not be affected at all because of the rostering. About 90% of decisions are usually in the nature of approvals, financial or otherwise. These can still be taken via emails and the sign can be put on a later date. That’s no issue,” said SK Pattanayak, former agriculture secretary who is currently the director of the Hyderabad-based Administrative Staff College.

“Video-conferencing is the key know. When the final matter is ready, it is printed, signed physically and then faxed and mailed to relevant officials,” the fifth official added.

Some practices are so ritualistic and a legacy of the colonial British era that e-governance doesn’t mean everything. Each decision has to be manually filed in paper and a “true physical copy” still needs to be sent out to each recipient, whether downwards to a junior official or to a higher authority in the same building or in other establishments within the capital.

This means that essential vehicles, drivers and courier personnel are functioning as they otherwise do, but only in a limited number. “The current staff strength is down to about 15%,” the second official said, but most secretaries heading departments are attending their offices.

“Understand that government people are working, whether in office or from home, just like you,” Pattaniak said.

The lockdown may be on, but the state is working.

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