The top rungs of India’s bureaucracy is facing a major manpower challenge, with key officials across central government departments and ministries indisposed following the surge in coronavirus infections.
Some of these officials were managing critical healthcare matters, according to multiple officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The second wave has affected every section of society in the country, including the bureaucracy. As a rule of thumb, one in every two officials is either affected by the infection or has a family member who is affected,” one of the officials mentioned above said.
The explosion of cases is straining the healthcare system, which requires not only more frontline workers but also experienced administrators. The staffing challenge comes at a time when authorities are working to ensure delivery of essential services and facilities such as hospital beds, intensive care units, vaccines, oxygen and ventilators.
The result: A sharp prioritization of work. “Core and routine functions are not affected as protocols for file movement are in place. Even officials who are unwell are clearing files from home. However, new ideas and proposals will have to wait unless they are meant to ameliorate the present situation,” a second official said on condition of anonymity.
Two senior health ministry officials are down with covid, while family members of another senior official involved in the vaccination programme have tested positive. Some members of an inter-ministerial panel monitoring the supply of essential medical supplies are infected.
A large number of tax officials and field staff have contracted covid. In the industry department, many senior officers have fallen ill.
Since 16 April, at least four Union ministers—Prakash Javadekar, Ramesh Pokhriyal, Kiren Rijiju and Jitendra Singh—have tweeted that they are covid positive.
“Nobody is holding back files, though the workload has gone up temporarily,” the second official quoted above said. Officials can access files in the eOffice platform of the National Informatics Centre from their home computers, though some files have to be physical, the official explained.
“We are facing a problem given that almost all joint secretaries in our ministry have tested positive. While we are trying our level best to manage, with officers pitching in through video-conferencing, the second wave has not been kind,” said a top official in a key infrastructure ministry.
There was no formal response till press time to queries emailed on Thursday to spokespersons of ministries of finance, civil aviation, road transport and highways, commerce and industry, as well as to queries emailed on Friday to ministry of health and family welfare. Queries emailed to the office of secretary, department of personnel and training and spokesperson on Friday remained unanswered.
Asit Ranjan Mishra, Neetu Chandra Sharma and Prashant K. Nanda contributed to this story.