Bleach, silence and personal water bottles: Ministry officials return to work
Covid-19 in India: Thermal scanners, masks and sanitiser are the new buzzwords in the corridors of North Block. At the very entrance, temperatures are scanned as CISF officials offer sanitiser to those entering the premises.Updated: Apr 20, 2020, 21:27 IST
Deepak, 28, carries a bright yellow backpack labelled Kisan Shakti as he moves along the first floor of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Deepak is one of the five members of the housekeeping staff tasked to sanitise the building four times a day.
The assistants to the senior officials sitting outside the offices get up from their seats as Deepak sprays the disinfectant on the tables and couches.
“We have been doing this since last month, once a day,” says Deepak. “Now we use this bleaching liquid more frequently than before.”
The change in schedule comes with the government’s latest directive, asking deputy secretary and above officials to rejoin office on Monday after nearly a month of work from home. A third of the junior staffers are also supposed to come to office, according to rosters decided by the head of the departments.
Joint secretary and above ranks officials have been coming to office since last week.
Thermal scanners, masks and sanitiser are the new buzzwords in the corridors of North Block. At the very entrance, temperatures are scanned as CISF officials offer sanitiser to those entering the premises. Officials not wearing masks are an anomaly. While the ministries have provided masks to the employees, many have chosen to invest in their own with varying versions from surgical masks to extra-protective ones.
However, even with over a third of the staff returning to work, there is silence in the corridors.
“Can you get us two cups of coffee or tea, but swacchta se (maintaining cleaniness),” a senior official asked a member of his team only to be told that the canteen wasn’t serving anything today.
“Officers would socialise earlier,” said a second ministry official. “But now the canteen is shut, there is no chai (tea), so there is no charcha (conversation).”
There are also officers carrying their own lunches and personal water bottles from home. “In the post-corona world, new rules to live and work by are being laid down,” a third official said. “Most of us now carry own lunches, make our own tea and even bring water bottles from home. It’s a lot more self-reliant than the ministries were earlier. I even make sure I switch off the lights in my room before I go home.”
“I drink my milk tea at home in the morning,” added the third official as he laughed. “In office, it’s only green tea for me.”
Moreover, most officials operate from within the four walls of their room. While senior officials have their own chambers, in case of junior officials extra care has been taken to ensure not more than two are in the same room.
“We have nearly eliminated the paper-trail,” the first official said. “Only the most confidential documents are on paper anymore. Moreover, we have critically reduced the number of meetings, even while at work we operate on phone, whatsapp and video calls on the NIC platform.”
“We have a four-day rotational shift,” said a CISF official posted outside one of the ministries in North Block. “After that we get break days and then return to work.” The CISF officials are the ones who sanitise and thermal scan those entering the buildings.
In many cases, officers are only calling supporting staff who have their own private vehicles and live nearby.
“I have only one multi-tasking staff,” said the first official. “And the only reason he was called in is because we needed to go through certain files.”
But with Delhi still in lockdown, and a lack of public transport, many junior staffers are finding it increasingly difficult to reach work.
“Junior-level officers normally travel using DTC buses and the metro,” an official told Hindustan Times. “There was a proposal to provide a transport allowance, but when there’s no transport, how will the allowance help.”
“Commuting has been tough as there aren’t enough vehicles for junior staff. We are supposed to carpool with others and tying up gets a bit tough. They have asked to try getting private cars for whoever can manage,” one government official said requesting anonymity.
Ministry staff has also expressed concerns over lack of social distancing measures while car-pooling. “Social distancing is not maintained when you have to pool with others. The entire point gets negated,” another ministry personnel said.
In certain cases, the ministry provides a vehicle for junior staffers while other times many senior officials have taken to sending their own cars to pick and drop the officials.
“I picked up one of the members of my team from Bengali market today,” said the first official. “He doesn’t have a car.”
Drivers working for the officials live nearby and normally walk to office. “We walk to office and drive the officers when needed,” a driver who has been working with one of the ministries’ for the last thirty years said. “The new thing about my job is that along with cleaning the car, I now sanitise it using a spray as well.”
According to Abdul Khan, a Delhi Police officer posted outside the Central Secretariat, the place has never been as eerily quiet before.
“Earlier we would have lots of people in this area,” Khan said. “Tourists, visitors and officers all would be here. There would 400-500 people waltzing in the lawns. Now a lot fewer of them come in.”