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The coal ministry’s path to a paperless office

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Image Credit: Vanita Arora

How Anil Swarup and his team managed the seemingly impossible task of getting a ministry to abandon its trademark files.

“Date for going totally digital in coal ministry advanced from 1st Nov to 16th Oct. All files & papers to move in digital format.” This is what the coal secretary, Anil Swarup, tweeted on October 4. Is this even possible in a government office, the cynic in me was itching to tweet back. After all, what’s a government office without peons scurrying down the corridors with piles of papers and rooms stuffed with dusty folders?

So I decided to check out Swarup’s Twitter claim for myself, and a week later, was at the Ministry of Coal office on the third floor of Shastri Bhavan in Lutyens Delhi. The hustle and bustle of the first day of the week was all too evident in the building (which also houses other ministries such as petroleum and natural gas and mines), and on the first two floors, there were plenty of safari suit-clad flunkies balancing piles of files as they darted from room to room. On the third floor, however, there was none of this.

In Swarup’s office, I couldn’t find the clutter of papers that usually adorn any bureaucrat’s desk. I ask him what triggered the move to go digital. “The primary reason behind going digital is transparency—now every officer is aware that everyone will know how much time he has been sitting on a paper or a file,” he says. Also, he adds, “One of the basic criticisms against the government is that files take a lot of time to process. Digitisation and digital movement of files takes care of that almost immediately.”

This is not the first time Swarup has handled a project of this sort. Before joining the coal ministry, he headed the Project Monitoring Group (PMG) in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) II government. One of the successes of the PMG was that it published on its website details of where and why a project was stuck. However, PMG was a much smaller department which made no decisions, whereas in the coal ministry, many of the files contain important financial details on the basis of which decisions are made.

How difficult was the actual process, I ask. “It does take a lot of effort opening up old files, scanning, and uploading them, but the biggest challenge is changing the mindset of people in the ministry,” says Swarup.

He didn’t do this alone, however. He credits the speedy implementation of the digitisation process to three young assistant secretaries: Shiraz Daneshyar, Gautham V.P., and Prithviraj B.P. “In 2014 when I joined the ministry, these are the three officers who came up with the proposal. They pushed us, they liaised with NIC [National Informatics Centre], and even trained senior officers,” says Swarup.

Daneshyar says it wasn’t so much the volume of work that was intimidating, it was the amount of handholding or training that ministry officers needed with the software. “The three of us understood the software since we had technical backgrounds, so we decided to help with training,” he adds. Around 100 people were individually trained by the three assistant secretaries in over 10 sessions of two hours each.

As far as the actual process goes, the digitisation was done in-house and no third-party information technology firm was engaged (think TCS and the Indian Passport Offices). The software is NIC’s eOffice suite, constituting eFile, which enables scanning, registering, and routing inward correspondence along with creation of files, noting, referencing, etc. Since the BJP-led government came to power in 2014, central government bodies have been pushed to adopt eOffice and go paperless. The coal ministry is the first major economic ministry to actually do it. Coal India, the largest agency under the ministry, will also be fully digitised by Dec. 31.

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The cost of hiring NIC's cloud server MeghRaj. Graphic by Vanita Arora. 

The backbone of the digitisation process is NIC’s cloud computing initiative, MeghRaj. Not only will the coal ministry store all its files on the cloud, MeghRaj will provide the web servers to create portals for companies to make applications for mining plans approvals, land acquisition, help officials get information on supply of fuel by Coal India, and so on.

Daneshyar says that since 2014, around 20-25 files have been getting digitised daily.

Before going digital, it is said that officers would often sit on a file for mining approvals for weeks. However, a source in the ministry tells me that once Swarup came in, he bought this down to a week. According to the Manual of Office Procedure, file movement stages cannot exceed four. The urgency of the files are rated as immediate, priority, and top priority—so the time taken to process will depend on the urgency. Unofficial estimates suggest with digitisation, the coal ministry’s processing time can come down by at least 15-25%.

There are 52 ministries and none of the others are paperless yet. Though the coal ministry may not have to communicate with every one of them, there are some with which they do communicate regularly. Swarup’s next big challenge will be to ensure that communication with other ministries is also digitised. “I am writing to all the secretaries and department heads to digitise. But till such time it happens, we will have to send them hard copies,” says Swarup pointing to the only file that was brought for him to sign during our half an hour conversation.

The Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Women and Child Development, and the Ministry of Panchayati Raj have taken the first steps towards digitisation, but it’s not going to happen overnight. It took the coal ministry two years.

I ask a former bureaucrat if other ministries will follow suit. He laughs. “If indeed other ministries are digitised, ministers may need to find more ingenuous methods of making information and communication disappear.”