No more files: Coal ministry is now paper-and clutter-free

After a month-long e-gov initiative, the ministry has become completely paper- and clutter-free

pratap

Pratap Vikram Singh | November 18, 2016 | New Delhi


#Paperless   #Coal Ministry   #Egovernance   #Egov  
A section office of the coal ministry. Earlier, files occupied most of the office space
A section office of the coal ministry. Earlier, files occupied most of the office space

It’s 2.30 in the afternoon and there is a mad rush in the corridors of Shastri Bhawan which houses the headquarters of several ministries. Holding a bunch of files in their hands or balancing the stack against the waist, peons run across various departments. To save some time, they carry at least five to eight files in one go, before they start for another round. A worker hurriedly pushing a trolley laden with files and papers is seen at frequent intervals in the gallery.

Funnily, despite all the hustle-bustle, the actual decision-making progresses at a snail’s pace. The physical movement of a file or a document between various floors and departments delays its processing: a file can take up to two working days in a ministry before a final decision is taken on it. A file at any government office has to follow a long trail. It first has to gain entry into the section officer’s workplace. After making its way through the offices of deputy secretary, director, joint secretary, additional secretary and secretary, it finally reaches the table of the Officer on Special Duty (OSD) attached to the minister. This to and fro between various levels of bureaucracy impedes swift decision-making.

But the second floor presents a contrast to the rest of the building – it has the office of the ministry of coal. Coal secretary Anil Swarup was not happy with the state of affairs. Swarup, who often says he carries his office in his pocket – referring to his smartphone, asked his ministry officials on September 16 to phase out paper files immediately. He categorically said that “from tomorrow, I will not take any physical files”, recalls a coal ministry official.

The change, however, did not happen the very next day. But the initial flurry of activity in the coal ministry office started subsiding. And a month later, on October 17, the ministry was declared paperless. Swarup’s strongly worded direction was put into action by a team of three 2014-batch administrative service officials. Shiraz Daneshyar (30), Prithviraj Meena (32) and VP Gautham (25) were on a four-month central deputation as assistant secretaries. The technical support was provided by a team of the National Informatics Centre (NIC).

Together, they implemented the electronic office (e-office) system, which aims to automate the entire workflow within the ministry and its various departments. The application has several functionalities. Under the e-office umbrella, there is an e-file system, which makes file movement from one office to another electronic. “It contains all the functionalities which are laid as per the central ministry standard operating procedure [CM-SOP]. It has transferred manual process into electronic online process,” says Daneshyar.

Although the e-office application was conceptualised way back in 2008, the government offices continued to follow the manual, physical movement of files. Barring a few central ministries, none implemented it fully.

The coal ministry’s month-long effort to implement e-office has brought noticeable change in its working. The desks of most of the senior officials I met didn’t have many files. One of them was joint secretary Vivek Bharadwaj. “Earlier, the stack of files on my table was so huge that I could barely make a direct eye contact with people sitting right across,” he says.

“Now I am not dependent on my office staff to dig out files. I can access it right here [pointing to his computer] in a few clicks. As everything is electronic now there is little chance of a file getting lost,” he adds.

Apart from a desktop, there were a couple of papers on his desk. Noticing my gaze, Bharadwaj quickly handed a few to me to check the nature of the documents. One was a letter from a corporate group and other was a copy of a high court judgment on coal block auctions. Except these aberrations, his desk was paper- and clutter-free.

A similar setup greeted me two floors above, in the office of Kishore Kumar, under-secretary, coal allocation-II. After logging into the e-office portal, Kumar explains how an electronic file transfer takes place. Pointing to the time-stamping of emails on his computer screen, he says, “The file was sent to the director’s office and then back to the section office [Kumar’s workplace] in just 38 minutes. Earlier the same task used to take a day or two.”

Before the e-office system was implemented in the coal ministry, a huge volume of files and papers used to greet Kumar every morning. “Now I open my computer, check the inbox, files and receipts. If there is anything which needs to be forwarded, I send it to the seniors. The file comes back and is sent to the subordinates, who then forward it for dispatch – all in a few minutes,” he says.

The e-office system is not only making things easy and convenient for the people in middle and upper levels of the ministry, but is also helping those at the lowest rung – the peons. Mohit, a peon with the admin section, now has more free time on hand. He utilises this time to help an officer in his department by making employee ID cards. Earlier, his entire day was spent ferrying bunches of files.

Bharat, who is attached to Daneshyar’s office, now hopes that files will be safe in the e-office system. Rats are a big nuisance in Shashtri Bhawan (so are the monkeys but at least they don’t nibble at the files). They can be found everywhere: canteen, admin section and even in the minister’s offices on the fifth floor. “Whenever I used to look for an old file, it was partly chewed by rats,” says Bharat.

Moreover, the offices would now appear clean and clutter-free, as there will be space to sit and move around. The admin section used to keep files on the floor as they were running out of storage space, he adds.

The modus operandi

To make e-office a reality, a massive drive to scan and digitise all records was taken up. “We decided to begin with the files related to the work in progress,” Daneshyar says. For this, the ministry procured some high-speed scanners. “In total we have 26 scanners. Of these, 14 are high-speed and 10 are mini-scanners with section officers.”

Past records will be outsourced for scanning and digitising. “We are hoping to get a vendor shortly. The scanning will be done within the ministry premises to maintain security and secrecy of the documents,” he says.

At the time of digitisation, all files are segregated and categorised. Not all files are required to be stored physically forever. It is done as per the ‘retention schedule’ followed by the ministry. The schedule categorises files as A, B and C. Files under category A & B can’t be destroyed. “Files under category A are not only permanent in nature but will also be microfilmed, whereas B category files may not have to have a microfilm,” Daneshyar says. On the other hand, category C files can be destroyed. But the time duration may vary from file to file. “For example, a file categorised as C5 means it can be destroyed only after five years,” he says.

Since all files are now being scanned and digitally stored, they will not be microfilmed anymore. A new retention schedule is on the anvil. Though most officials and departments of the coal ministry have benefitted from e-office, there are some sections like the vigilance which are apprehensive about it. The officials in this section are worried that the new system would compromise the secrecy of documents. “Similar concerns are raised in relation to cabinet notes,” Daneshyar says.

“In such a scenario we had two options. First to give upfront exemption to certain sections. And the other was to roll out and train people on the job and acquaint them with the system and allay their fears. We chose the latter one,” the assistant secretary says. On-the -job training was provided to ministry officials. “We sat with a section for four to five hours and explained the entire application and its features,” he says.
While it may take some time to achieve end-to-end digitisation, the core of e-office, that is, the e-file system, has already been put in place in the ministry in just a month’s time. Coal India Limited (CIL), the country’s largest coal mining company, will soon follow suit. It plans to go paperless by December-end.

The project, which most central ministries are yet to implement, moved at a faster pace in the coal ministry because of a handful of reasons. “First and foremost was the decision at the top to not accept any physical files after the given timeline. The ministry didn’t spend much time and resources in training, it opted for one-to-one hand-holding instead. No parallel systems to go back to the paper were allowed. And lastly, sound technical expertise, which came from the NIC and three young tech-savvy administrators made e-office a success,” says Daneshyar.

pratap@governancenow.com

(The story appears in the November 16-30, 2016 issue)

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