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How Indian bureaucracy is moving urgent files with ingenuity during the lockdown

The government cannot move one step without a file. Here's how filed are being moved in this situation.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Apr 05, 2020, 08.52 AM IST
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Corridors of the many government offices in Lutyens’ Delhi are as deserted as the streets of the city to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. The situation is similar in the secretariats in almost all state capitals.

Barring emergency services, the rest of India’s government machinery is either working from home or sitting dormant. “VC” (video conferencing) and “VPN” (virtual private networks) have become common words in sarkari vocabulary.

Yet the government cannot move one step without a file — be it the new-age electronic file or the age-old paper file fastened with a red ribbon.

During the normal course, a file is born at the level of a junior officer before it is sent upwards, with the higher officer at each level making notes on it and adding her signature. The file, after reaching the top, then moves downwards via the same chain before the final order is issued with a junior officer’s signature.

However, this unprecedented 21-day lockdown has led to jugaads in the functioning of Indian bureaucracy.

The bureaucracy is shortening the circuitous route of files and crafting innovative methods to approve and disseminate decisions while also keeping an eye on possible loose ends to avoid uncomfortable questions from auditory and probing agency at a later date. The solutions include fast-tracking decisions through video conferences, conversion of the minutes of a meeting into a paper file and sending files via WhatsApp for quick action. In some cases, file notings mention that the minister concerned has “accorded sanction over telephone”. The file is sent to the minister for “post-facto approval”, meaning the signature of the approving authority will come only after the decision has already been implemented.

“At 11.30 am daily, I chair a meeting of six or seven key officers, including home and revenue secretaries. The decisions are noted. I sign on the printout of the minutes of the meeting with actionable points, and that itself acts as a file. The file is then WhatsApped to the district magistrates and other officers for implementation,” says Kumar Sanjay Krishna, the chief secretary of Assam. The decisions with financial implications are signed by the finance officer then and there, he says.

As most of the present decisions are connected to the coronavirus pandemic, Krishna draws his power more as chairman of the Assam Disaster Management Authority than as chief secretary. ET Magazine has learnt that decisions in some states are being implemented even before the sanctioning authority signs on the file.

“In urgent matters, implementation of the decisions do not wait for the minister’s signature,” says a senior Chhattisgarh official, explaining the ingenuity being used to write file notes. “The official will note in the file itself that she has received approval over phone and the file will be sent for post-facto approval. That used to happen earlier too, and is happening more now due to the logistical challenges and urgency of matters.”

Active-E-Files


Naya Raipur, Chhattisgarh’s new capital that houses the secretariat, is virtually empty as key officers are working out of the Chhattisgarh Infotech Promotion Society or CHiPS building in the heart of Raipur, the previous capital. A handful of critical decision-makers come to the building daily, take decisions, sign files and pass orders.

Even in Telangana, top officials in critical departments such as health and finance come to the secretariat every day. “We have the e-file as well as the paper file system. The finance secretary is using her mobile phone for all urgent sanctions. For medical expenses, the managing director of Telangana State Medical Services Infrastructure Development Corporation has been empowered,” says a senior official connected to the day-to-day decision-making process.

Thanks to the thrust towards digitalisation, the number of active efiles in India, at 79.1 lakh, is nearly five times more than paper files, according to data available with Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances.

Yet, the very prevalence of 16.7 lakh active paper files — 12.5 lakh with the Centre and 4.1 lakh with states – is massive when the entire nation is under a long lockdown, and many senior officials are working from home.

At the Centre, only files dealing with essential services and financial deadlines are on the move now. Many files are being created by senior officers too, circumventing the usual practice of relying on junior officials to achieve faster implementation of orders.

In the ministry of commerce and industry, for example, Union minister Piyush Goyal is chairing a daily video conference of all officials of the joint secretary and above rank. The decisions are converted into actionable points, and files are moved immediately.

As compared to other ministries, this ministry has a logistical edge since most of its files are circulated electronically.

Electronic offices were launched in central ministries way back in 2008 though the pace of converting paper-laden sarkari offices into paperless ones has picked up only recently.

However, paper files are still prevalent in most ministries, and many senior officers as well as ministers continue to insist on paper files, prompting junior officers to take printouts, get the papers signed, scan them and store them back in the electronic format.

In Indian Railways, e-files are prevalent only at the zonal and divisional level. The ones being circulated in the headquarters in Delhi are still paper files.

However, since the “janta curfew” on March 22, senior officers at the headquarters have been attending mandatory video conferences at 5 pm daily to take urgent decisions. Thirty orders were issued at these conferences between March 23 and April 1.

“The railways is considered notorious for taking slow decisions, but all Covid-19 related matters are being pursued fast. That our zones and divisions have already migrated to e-offices is helping us a lot during this hour of crisis,” says a senior official who attends these daily video conferences.
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