The world has been shaken and bruised by the coronavirus. But if we draw the right lessons, we could turn this crisis into an opportunity as well.
Let me give a personal example: I had to travel from Mumbai to Dehradun to conduct a two-hour Right to Information workshop late in March 2020. It was cancelled because of the lockdown. Otherwise, I would have been away from home for about 60 hours and the trip would have cost Rs 20,000. The workshop was later rescheduled and held online in April.
The total time the participants and I spent was about just over two hours and almost no expenses were incurred. It was as effective as it would have been had I gone to Dehradun and the only difference was that there were no handshakes or photographs.
Before the pandemic, the idea of working from home had been accepted only in certain businesses. Physical meetings and working together in an office were deemed largely necessary. People would travel halfway around the globe for an hour-long presentation. For conferences and the like, travel time exceeded the actual duration of the meeting, not to mention the cost of transportation and hotels.
Even for meetings in Mumbai, where I live, it would often take me two hours of travel for a meeting that lasted only 30 minutes. Since the coronavirus crises, online platforms are being used enthusiastically to communicate and hold meetings.
In India, some courts adopted online hearings, but with great reluctance and only for urgent matters. Most courts and quasi-judicial bodies, such as the information commissions, treated this period like a paid holiday acting on the doubtful premise of “no work, full pay”. If they made a small change in the way their brains were wired, they would realise that accepting online hearings as the norm would save hundreds of hours and enormous effort for litigants, witnesses and lawyers.
All proceedings could be live streamed and even recorded and these would then be truly open courts under the watchful eyes of a number of citizens. With regard to the courts, some lawyers and litigants have claimed they would like to be present physically. That choice could be left to up to them. In a year, the number of people going to courts could fall by 50%.
As with the courts, for many activities, physical proximity is not essential. The prime minister has held cabinet and other key meetings with chief ministers and other officials across the country. Video-conferencing, meetings and even socialising online have become well accepted. Some schools, especially in urban areas, have taken to virtual classrooms with great enthusiasm. In some government schools, computers were provided to students. I am not suggesting that there would be no physical meetings. But it is certainly possible that these could be reduced to about 30% of earlier times. Socialising could continue as before.
The space required for many offices could be reduced by half by requiring less than 50% of the staff to come in on any given day. My own experience is that once people get used to the idea, virtual hearings would not take any longer than usual hearings. It is not an exaggeration to say that given the current circumstances, social distancing may be required at least until the end of 2022.
The benefits of tapping into technology could be immense. As it turns out, video-conferencing of RTI hearings has been the norm for the Central Information Commission for more than a decade. By redesigning the way we work, we could convert this crisis into an opportunity of lasting value.
It is imperative for organisations to use this crisis and design a work-from-home system for employees. For those who find it difficult to work from home, workspaces could be set up in a distributed manner. Instead of waiting for the virus to go away, we should use this opportunity to change the way we work in urban areas.
Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner.