When the Union cabinet met on March 10, the meeting didn’t last for more than 15 minutes. There was just one agenda, creation of the Pradhan Mantri Swasthya Suraksha Nidhi as a single non-lapsable reserve fund, and the meeting was held online.
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led cabinet, the highest executive body of the country, has switched to a digital mode for the past many months after the Covid-19 pandemic plagued India last year, according to officials involved in the meetings.
Public health safety protocols were overhauled in 2020 as Covid-19 played havoc with human lives, livelihoods and the economy. The government imposed federal lockdown, shut down many public services and offices were closed in an effort to contain the virus in the country of 1.3 billion people.
As millions of Indians clung to the internet more than ever to earn livelihoods, hundreds of public offices too, went online, discarding the age-old style of functioning. The Union cabinet, that meets every week on Wednesday, switched to a never-before digital avatar to get the government of India’s mammoth machinery going.
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And now, even as both Houses of Parliament have partially relaxed social distancing norms and held two sessions in physical form, political parties are frequently going into a huddle to strategise for the coming polls, and government offices have usual attendance, the cabinet continues to remain online.
“Yes, the cabinet meetings continue to be held online,” said a top government official who attends all such meetings.
These top-secret meetings are held on a secured platform developed by NIC, the government’s IT arm that has also devised the platform for online movement of files. “The same platform had been used for the PM’s Pragati meetings with bureaucrats,” said a third official.
The ministers are free to log on from their offices or residences using passwords or biometric impressions. “But they are expected to remain in Delhi when the cabinet meetings take place,” said a senior aide of a minister of a social sector.
There are a few reasons, one of the officials mentioned above said, for the digital cabinet meetings. “It becomes far more easier for all ministers to meet online as most of them are extremely busy in their constituencies or states.” Another official said, accommodating all 21 ministers while maintaining the required 6-ft social distancing norm between two chairs in the cabinet room is a major challenge.
While no PMO officials tested positive for Covid-19 in this entire period, there was one instance when some of the NIC officials in the PMO tested positive and in that week, no online meetings could be held.
To be sure, the Union cabinet held physical meetings on a few occasions last year at the 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. The huge centre table was removed from the designated cabinet room, to ensure social distancing. The PM sat at one end and ministers’ chairs were laid out in four rows in front.
“There were two separate doors—one for the ministers and the other exclusively for the PM—in the room to adhere to health norms,” said a second official. But the PMO decided to stick to the digital format as it was convenient for all ministers.