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‘Hospital-like’ meetings, temp checks, making tea — Govt back in old offices but new work life




File image of North Block in New Delhi, which houses the Ministry of Home Affairs | Photo: Bloomberg
File image of North Block in New Delhi, which houses the Ministry of Home Affairs | Photo: Bloomberg

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New Delhi: The central government offices sprang back to action Monday, albeit slowly, after almost a month of working from home due to the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.

All personnel ranked as deputy secretary and above returned to ministerial offices while ministers and senior bureaucrats had already begun attending office last week. Of those ranking below the deputy secretary level, only 33 per cent of staff are expected in office.

But it wasn’t “work as usual” for those back in office. To start with, every office checked the body temperature of employees and had them sanitise their hands at the entry gate.

All employees were made to wear face masks, some even had gloves on, and everyone kept to their respective rooms. Doors to cabins of senior officers were kept ajar to avoid having to use the door knob while the ubiquitous hardbound government files were given a miss in most offices.

Also read: Work from home, more sick leaves, no visitors: How Modi govt is keeping staff COVID 19-free

‘Surreal’ work life

Talking to ThePrint, many officials joked about how the Covid-19 outbreak might have succeeded in doing something that was unthinkable before — usher in a new work culture to government offices.

Discussions on important issues happened on newly formed WhatsApp groups or on phone calls. Instead of making notes on paper files, officials used e-mail. In some cases, physical meetings were held in conference rooms with only senior officers in central ministries. The meetings, though, followed new protocol, several officials told ThePrint.

A senior railways ministry official described the experience as “surreal”.

“The conference room had the feel of an operation theatre. All officers wore masks and sat at a distance from each other. One of our colleagues was wearing gloves … We all brought our own pen and paper. Nobody touched anything. No tea, coffee or snacks were served. At times it was difficult to understand what the other offiicial was saying with the face mask on,” said the official who did not want to be named.

A director-level officer in the shipping ministry said that he was pleasantly surprised to see a majority of the staff, irrespective of their seniority, taking the stairs instead of using the elevator.

“Everybody was conscious not to brush past another in a hurry while climbing stairs. The few who took the lift, waited in the queue, ensuring that just three people went in at a time. Such discipline and courteousness is rarely seen in government offices,” the official said.

Also read: Not a win-win situation — why we should not work from home after the Covid-19 lockdown

Lifestyle changes in govt offices

Officials have been instructed to eat in small batches in the pantry, use the stairs instead of lifts and to strictly maintain a gap of at least one meter or three feet — a social distancing measure, among other basic things.

“The discipline with which the instructions are being followed by most is encouraging,” the railway official quoted above said.

Another stark difference from earlier times, some officials said, was the near-empty corridors of government offices. People have been careful to avoid crowding any area in the building.

“Earlier, it was usual to see junior staff moving in groups around lunch time and gossiping in the corridors. That has stopped. I hope the culture stays,” an official in the Shram Shakti Bhawan, which houses the labour and Jal Shakti ministry, said.

Other changes, more prominent for senior officials, include the small tasks they need to do instead of relying on other staff.

“I drove my own car, for example … There are no office boys also, so most people are making their own tea, picking up their own bags, and serving their own lunch,” a director level official in one of the ministries said.

“Even the officers don’t want to come in contact with people as much as possible. So mostly, they are doing their own work for a change,” the officer said.

All offices, however, are adhering to the strict protocols issued by their respective ministries to maintain hygiene. A road ministry official said the sanitation staff goes to every room every few hours to disinfect it and clean the door knobs and handles.

Entry of visitors including journalists to all ministries is being discouraged, while routine issue of visitors/temporary passes remain suspended.

“Only those visitors with proper permission of the officer, whom they want to meet, are being allowed in after proper screening,” said a housing ministry official.

Also read: Juggling e-files & family — how WFH, Covid-19 changed life for govt’s science, tech officers

Divided staff strength

While staff above the deputy secretary level returned at 100 per cent strength, only one-third of the lower staff has been attending office as per the government orders.

“Rosters have been made for lower staff, and at a time, only one-third of them are coming to work,” said an Income Tax officer on the condition of anonymity. “Most drivers, etc. have their own private bikes, so they are managing to come to work on bikes and pick up senior officials,” the officer added.

However, despite advisories and instructions from the government, some officials said that working at 100 per cent strength is risky and unnecessary.

“You cannot avoid putting yourself at risk when you are in the lift, washroom, corridor, etc.,” said an official. “Especially when you know so many people are asymptomatic, what is the point of calling everyone at once?”

Ministries and departments have also been instructed to arrange special transportation facilities for those who do not have their own vehicle or travel from a distance. Some ministries have started car pool facilities. “But strict protocol is followed to carry only two staff at a time,” the shipping ministry official said.

A secretary level official in one of the infrastructure ministries said that they are maintaining a strict vigil to ensure that rules are being followed. “We are taking feedback from our staff and making changes to our processes, if required,” the secretary said.

Also read: Central govt staff can work from home during lockdown, but will have to follow these rules


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Andhra doctor, suspended for alleging PPE shortage, now beaten by cops for ‘creating nuisance’




doctor with a stethoscope
A doctor with a stethoscope (Representative image) | Pixabay

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Bengaluru: A doctor with a government hospital in Andhra Pradesh, who was suspended for questioning the shortage of PPE kits, was admitted to a mental health facility Sunday, a day after he was allegedly manhandled by the police and arrested for creating nuisance in Visakhapatnam.

Dr Sudhakar Rao, a government civil surgeon, was beaten, his hands tied behind his back and dragged by police officers Sunday. During the incident, Sudhakar allegedly verbally abused the Jagan Mohan Reddy government in an inebriated state. Videos of the incident have since been widely shared online.

“The police control room received a call about a person creating nuisance on Beach Road Hospital in Visakhapatnam. The Fourth Town police was rushed there and found that the person was the suspended doctor, Sudhakar.

“When the police tried to control him, he snatched the mobile phone of an officer and threw it away. He is suffering from mental disorder and he was drunk. He was sent for a medical examination,” Vishakapatnam Police Commissioner R.K. Meena told the media Sunday.

Sudhakar was admitted to a mental hospital Sunday after doctors at the King George Hospital in Vishakapatnam said he suffered from anxiety.

“Since the doctor is in anxiety and talking irrelevant things, I have referred him to a mental care hospital in Visakhapatnam,” said Dr Radha Rani, medical superintendent, King George Hospital.

A statement released by the hospital said: “Dr Sudhakar was brought to the KGH casualty ward at 6.30 pm. From the smell, it was found that he was in a drunk condition. Under the influence of alcohol, he did not cooperate with anybody there and kept abusing all. Still, his pulse, BP were checked. Pulse was 98, BP 140/100. Blood samples were sent to forensic lab to ascertain alcohol content in his blood.”

Also read: 6 toilets for 20 houses, inadequate testing: Why Mumbai’s Worli chawls are a Covid hotspot

‘Treatment towards Sudhakar was inhuman’

Sudhakar, who spent more than 10 years at the Narsipatnam Government Hospital in Andhra Pradesh, was suspended from his duties in March after he openly criticised the Reddy government for failing to provide PPE kits and N95 masks to doctors treating Covid-19 patients.

He had alleged that the state government was giving N95 masks and PPE kits meant for doctors to politicians and the police.

A video of Sudhakar criticising the government was also shared widely. In the clip, he can be heard saying: “We are putting our lives at risk here. We are asked to use the same mask for 15 days and a fresh mask will be provided only twice a month.”

Speaking to ThePrint, Dr P. Gangadhar Rao, member of the National COVID Committee of the Indian Medical Association, said the manner in which Sudhakar was manhandled by the police was “inhuman” and “violated” human rights.

“We strongly condemn the way he was taken into custody. He was not carrying a weapon, he was alone, the number of policemen outnumbered him. Why treat him like that? We also saw a video where a policeman beats him with a lathi,” said Dr Gangadhar.

He added that Rao was one of the most experienced anaesthetists the Andhra Pradesh government had.

“Our next step of action is to get Sudhakar to write an unconditional apology for having used filthy language, abusing the chief minister and the government. We will then take our appeal to the CM seeking that he be reinstated,” Gangadhar said.

Also read: Face shields, gowns, masks — the new attire for cabin crew post lockdown


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