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

The Department of Science & Technology knows it holds the key to solving the Covid-19 problem. Here’s how it has changed its functioning in this time of crisis.

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New Delhi: Juggling between constant WhatsApp notifications, video conferences, and mobilising her family members to help out with domestic chores. That’s what life is like for Anita Gupta, a scientific officer at the central government’s Department of Science and Technology (DST), during the 21-day nationwide lockdown.

Gupta is spearheading a major initiative to encourage India’s start-ups to propose rapid solutions to fight Covid-19. And with the death toll in the country climbing above 200, Gupta and other members of the government workforce are working double shifts from their homes to accelerate scientific research. 

The DST, like many other arms of the government, has been accused of sitting on project proposals for many months — a charge even officials of the department admit to.

Yet, in this hour of crisis, the department is approving research proposals in a matter of days, with the hope of rapidly deploying scientific solutions to battle the disease that has no cure yet. 

Also read: Modi govt throws Covid-19 innovation ‘challenge’ to Indians, will fund winning ideas

Simplifying processes without losing due diligence

“When the secretary gave us this direction that we should have an initiative to combat Covid-19 with our start-up network, we did not have any proposal in hand. That was on the morning of 30 March. By the evening of 31 March, we mobilised everyone in our network, and within hours, proposals started coming in,” Gupta said. 

“We used to take a minimum of one week in running around and getting sanctions from the finance department. This has been cut down to just a few hours,” she added.  

Ashutosh Sharma, the DST Secretary, told ThePrint that it is usual for him now to be on video calls late into the night.

“Considering the urgency of situation, when it comes to projects related to coronavirus, we have gone about simplifying some of the processes — but without short-circuiting anything that is important,” Sharma said.  

The financial and scientific due diligence retains the same intensity, he added.

Also read: India has allocated over Rs 200 cr for new Covid-19 projects: Science secretary

Shifting work online

Sharma said the process of shifting the ministry’s work onto the digital platform had started almost four years ago. Using e-Office, a platform created by the National Informatics Centre (NIC), almost 70-75 per cent of the ministries files had been made digital. 

“Starting four years ago, we made all submission and processing electronic. The scientific processing and interface with the rest of the world was already becoming electronic. It was only our internal processing that was not entirely electronic,” the secretary said.

This changed once the lockdown was announced. 

In the first week of the lockdown, the DST gave VPNs for section officers, Sharma said. 

“At this point, officers at all levels can handle files online,” he said.

Akhilesh Gupta, the DST’s nodal officer on Covid-19, explained that physical presence in office was required for two things — meetings and signing files. But e-files are now being handled completely digitally. 

“My colleague in Ghaziabad sends the e-file to me in R.K. Puram, where I stay. I look at the e-file and if I have to write any comment/remark, I do that, and forward it to the secretary, who resides in Moti Bagh,” he explained. 

“The secretary opens that e-file, vets it, signs it digitally and sends it back to me. I send it to the person concerned, who again forwards it to the finance department. This entire process does not require physical presence,” the nodal officer said.

As for meetings, the DST has convened 60 to 70 meetings in the last two weeks. 

“What we have realised is that if we conduct a meeting through a webinar, we see that the attendance is almost 100 per cent,” Akhilesh Gupta said. 

“Earlier, people could not attend meetings throughout the day. There were instances when people had to attend 2-3 meetings at different places in a day, and so could not make themselves available all the time.”

Anita Gupta added: “We used to spend so much time only trying to decide where our next meeting would be held. Mobilising all the national experts for the meeting, arriving at a date agreed to by all, planning with the local partner who would be conducting all the logistics… It is used to take a good month or two to plan a high-level meeting.”

Now, the same thing can be done from home in a day. 

Also read: DRDO develops product to prevent spread of air droplets to doctors from Covid-19 patients

‘Working from home, and working for home’

The lockdown has, however, created new hurdles, especially for women working in the government. 

“We do not have the support system anymore — our house helps are no longer here, so one needs to mobilise family to help with household chores,” Anita Gupta said. 

She added that some of her colleagues who have young children have had to figure out how to work, since all schools are closed and children need attention.

“We have to constantly strike a balance between working from home and working for home,” she said. 

Will this style of work continue post-Covid-19?

Sharma said the Covid-19 challenge has brought the best out of the employees, but in a business-as-usual scenario, “the work will expand to fill the available time”.

“If we lock people inside and tell them that some work has to be done in one week, then they have to do something extra to make that possible. So, people will be surprised about what they can achieve,” he said. 

The DST secretary added that the “good practices learnt during the lockdown” will get incorporated when this crisis blows over.

However, Anita Gupta said Covid-19 will mark a paradigm shift in the department’s work culture.

“All departments of the government are stepping up to do their part, but at the end, solutions are only going to come from science and technology — be it vaccines, personal protective equipment, ventilators, sanitisers or novel therapeutics. So, we realise how important the role of innovation in science is,” she said.

She added that the DST is working at its peak productive capacity, and all those who can help are rising to the challenge and doing their bit. 

“That is the positive side to this crisis,” she said.

Also read: India has done very well to fight Covid-19, but it’s not time to lift the lockdown


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