New Delhi: Video conferences, surprise visits, nights at the office, and stolen moments for puja: In office or not, most ministers in the Narendra Modi cabinet have been on their toes since PM Narendra Modi announced an unprecedented nationwide lockdown on 24 March to contain the spread of Covid-19.
Every cabinet minister in the Modi government has been tasked with coordinating the lockdown in 20 districts each. So, apart from holding regular meetings to deal with the day-to-day matters of their respective ministries, they are now interacting daily with district officials and firefighting, if required, to resolve any obstacle that arises in the battle against the pandemic.
Many are also aggressively using Twitter to create awareness about coronavirus and emphasising the need for social distancing.
“In the fight against Covid-19, the ministers have been made the link between the central government and states,” said a senior government official. “Their role is to keep abreast of all coronavirus-related developments in their respective districts and bring to the PM’s notice any issue that needs central intervention,” the official added.
On the job
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who heads a 15-member ministerial task force formed to ensure an uninterrupted supply of essential commodities to people in coordination with states, has been regularly holding meetings with colleagues at his residence to assess the situation on the ground.
“The task force’s mandate is to take stock of the situation vis-a-vis essential supplies on a daily basis and clear bottlenecks on account of the lockdown,” a second government official told ThePrint.
Singh, an MP from Lucknow who has been entrusted with 20 districts of Uttar Pradesh, also holds regular meetings with local officials, all of which he juggles with his mandate as the defence minister.
His list of meetings includes those related to his ministry. For instance, he met the chiefs of the armed forces as well as ministry officials last week to review their preparedness to deal with the pandemic.
As Union Home Minister, Amit Shah is overseeing the overall lockdown effort. While he is primarily out and about to monitor the situation, he has also been working from home. He has set up four control rooms at North Block to track all information on coronavirus, which has claimed 56 lives in India so far with 2,088 active cases as of Friday afternoon.
A home ministry source told ThePrint that Shah dropped in at the control rooms for “surprise visits” to see if everything is in order.
Shah, the source said, had deputed his two junior ministers — G. Kishan Reddy and Nityanand Rai — to manage the control rooms 24×7.
“They are working on 12-hour shifts and sleep at North Block,” the source added.
Apart from their assigned responsibilities, some ministers have also come up with innovative ways to help the public. Union Water Resources Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat has set up a small control room of sorts at his residence, which is managed by a dedicated team of volunteers.
The minister has given out his personal mobile number, through a video clip circulated among his contacts, with the message that people living anywhere in the country can call him if they face any problem related to food or accommodation.
“All they have to do is give their name, address, phone number and the number of people for whom help is needed,” said a government official.
“Once a call is received, the team coordinates with the respective state government to provide assistance.”
Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal, overseeing the crucial mandate of schools as the new session kicks in amid the lockdown, has been handling the situation from home.
He meets officials at his residence besides holding video conferences to take crucial decisions related to the education sector — be it postponing competitive exams, or directing the CBSE to conduct Class 10 and 12 board exams for only those subjects crucial to promotion and admission to higher education institutions, among others.
It is between these meetings that Pokhriyal squeezes in some time for his daily puja. On 1 April, he tweeted a picture of himself doing a Navratri puja.
नवरात्रि" के आठवें दिन (अष्ठमी) माँ की पूजा अर्चना कर आरती की एवं समस्त जगत के कल्याण के लिए माँ से प्रार्थना की। pic.twitter.com/FBDUzEB5at
— Dr Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank (@DrRPNishank) April 1, 2020
While trains around India remain suspended, Railways Minister Piyush Goyal has his hands full too, executing the government’s decision to convert rail coaches into quarantine facilities and arranging rail coaches for supplying grains to states. Meetings with officials located outside Delhi are conducted through video conferences.
No option to stay in
While most ministers are working from home, they have to step out for cabinet meetings that take place at the Prime Minister’s residence at 7 Lok Kalyan Marg every Wednesday. The meeting, however, was not held this week.
The ministers who don’t have the luxury of working from home at all include Health and Family Welfare Minister Harsh Vardhan, whose ministry has been in the thick of things since January, when the first Covid-19 case was reported in India.
Harsh Vardhan, a qualified doctor himself, has been attending office regularly to monitor the situation, holding multiple meetings, and coordinating the Covid-19 containment and treatment effort with other stakeholder ministries/agencies, including the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
On Friday morning, Harsh Vardhan visited the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital to see how the hospital was handling Covid-19 patients. He also interacted with doctors and nurses at the hospital.
The health minister heads the group of ministers (GoM) formed to review, monitor and evaluate preparedness and the measures taken to manage the Covid-19 outbreak in the country.
The GoM, which also includes External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai, Union Shipping and Chemicals and Fertilisers Minister Mansukh L. Mandaviya, and MoS, Health and Family Welfare, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, has been meeting multiple times every week at Nirman Bhawan, the health ministry headquarters.
Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda, who is in Jharkhand, has been busy interacting with local MPs, apart from those in Chhattisgarh and Telangana, to get track the situation in these states.
Munda accompanies officials for food-distribution trips to the tribal districts of Jharkhand, where he also sensitised people on Covid-19 and social distancing.