COVID 19 has shaken up the world and made our lives topsy-turvy. It has rudely shaken most of our norms and assumptions. While earlier we considered it desirable to meet and congregate together, this crisis requires that we maintain a distance from other human beings. Showing cordiality and warmth by shaking hands or hugging is strictly avoided. One simple example: In 2019 no bank would have allowed entry to someone wearing a mask, while now no bank will permit entry to anyone not wearing a mask. Our lives and livelihoods have been affected very seriously and left us gasping to cope. However, there are some areas where it is giving us some great lessons. One of these lessons is that for many activities and office work we need not gather and can work efficiently without being together. This lesson has been learned by many offices and the available technology is being used to ensure this. The know-how and technology were available but were not utilised effectively.
Whereas earlier the concept of working from home had been accepted in some businesses it had been largely deemed necessary to have physical meetings and to work together in an office. People would travel halfway round the globe for a one-hour presentation. For conferences and meetings often the time for travelling was far higher than the actual time spent in the meeting. Most of the expenses were on travelling and hotels. Even for meetings within the same city two hours of travel would be undertaken for a 15 minute meeting. During this Corona crisis people are enthusiastically using the various e-platforms to communicate and hold meetings.
When the first lockdown was announced it came as a huge disruptive shock. Most offices and activities were brought to a sudden halt. Soon private enterprise began to use internet and e-platforms to do their work from home. The Supreme Court also started hearings using the internet and e-platforms in a selective way. Considerable work on this had been done by the e-committee headed by Justice DY Chandrachud. However, this was restricted to urgent hearings in High Courts and Supreme Court. Most subordinate courts did not adopt virtual hearings and hence the backlog has been mounting. Earlier, the pendency of all the courts is the country was growing annually at a rate of less than 3%. In the beginning of 2020 the pending cases were 34.6 million cases whereas by the end of the year this has gone up to 42.1 million, an increase of nearly 22%! We do not know how long the pandemic will threaten us, and the Indian judicial system will be completely broken at this rate.
It has been well established that judicial and quasi-judicial hearings over the internet are feasible and work reasonably well. There are a few glitches that could be resolved as the system evolves further. Virtual hearings in courts would result in lower costs for litigants and ease of operations for most lawyers. Instead of wasting hours in crowded courtrooms, lawyers and litigants can continue their work in their houses or offices and spend just the time required for the hearing. Lawyers from small towns could appear even before the Supreme Court without incurring the unnecessary cost and time of travelling to Delhi. This could result in a major relief to crowded courtrooms and transport. Some legal professionals claim that they find it difficult to participate in e-hearings. This is something that can be resolved with two to four hours of training. Even without any training watchmen, drivers, hawkers and school children are using video chats and Whatsapp.
There may be some types of cases where physical hearings are required. These are unlikely to be more than 20% of the total cases. However, there is a resistance to change. According to Justice RC Chavan, the Vice-chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed e-committee, all the requirements for virtual operations are in place and this would become a big boon for everyone. Without visiting courts, the advocates can be registered on the portal, all filings can also be done by internet, affidavits can be affirmed electronically and all fees and payments can be done electronically. Litigants and lawyers need not visit the courts at all.
Our current experience and the prospect of slowing down our already slow disposals of judicial and quasi-judicial matters should make us adopt virtual hearings in all judicial and quasi-judicial matters. There is no real impediment except in the mind.
There is a fair possibility that the social distancing norms may have to be continued during 2021. Many courts are going back to physical hearings on an ‘experimental basis’. It must be understood that this is an experiment with human health and lives. The e-committee has developed the complete requirements for the virtual operation of all the courts. I am describing the way it could relate to courts, but the same logic would apply to other work including schools and colleges. The same workspaces could be used for nearly double the work.
It is not being suggested that there would be no physical meetings. But it is certainly possible that these could be reduced to about 30 percent of the earlier times. For socializing it would continue as before.
The spaces required for many offices could be reduced by at least half, by getting less than 50% of the staff to be present on any given day. Incidentally, Video Conferencing of hearings in RTI matters has been the norm for the Central Information Commission for over a decade. My own experience is that once people get used to the idea, the time taken for hearings is no more than in the usual hearings. Unless the courts and other quasi-judicial bodies start their work immediately by virtual hearings the burden of pending cases will become unbearable. There is a demand in courts to soon revert to physical hearings. It is not an exaggeration to say that given the present scenario, social distancing may be required until the middle of 2021. If we use technology, we can make this into an opportunity to use time and resources more gainfully.
The benefits can be immense. Everyone must consider making this the new normal and reduce travel time and expense. A significant reduction in the people travelling will also lead to lesser pollution and carbon footprint. I would seriously urge that we try and convert this crisis to redesign the way we work. We could then convert this crisis into an opportunity of lasting value. This is the time to challenge our earlier concepts and get a positive outcome in the way urban centres work and function. This could lead to a better quality of life with less travel induced stress and an actual reduction of traffic and consequent pollution. We should make this our new normal at least in our Urban Areas.
If we treat this pandemic as an excuse to work less we will have wasted the lessons from it. It is imperative for different organizations to figure out how to begin treating this crisis to work out how they could permanently change their work methods so that people could work from home. There may be some people whose homes may be so small that they cannot work from home. Workspaces could be set up in a distributed manner to facilitate such people and these could work like cyber cafes. Instead of waiting for the virus to go, we should seize this opportunity to change our work styles in urban areas. If this becomes our new normal, we will have drawn the right lessons to benefit everyone.