A computer-operated laser-cutting machine, the size of a table-tennis board, is silently embossing the State Emblem of India on a transparent acrylic sheet in a corner of a workshop in the industrial neighbourhood of Delhi’s Paharganj. In the unseasonal September afternoon heat, five-six labourers, all in their 20s, are busy making signboards, glow signs and name plates — and, increasingly these days, putting the Ashoka symbol on acrylic sheets.
As the work of the government goes on amidst the coronavirus, the desks of the high and mighty in the Capital have started sporting these transparent sheets, standing as barriers between them and visitors. For want of a better name, the sheets have been dubbed “sneeze guards”.
Parliament began its Monsoon Session this week armed with similar sheets, though made from polycarbonate and selected by the Central Public Works Department keeping in mind the building’s heritage furniture. “The idea was to provide a partition between MPs. The sheets are light-weight, with minimum alteration to the furniture,” a senior Parliament official says.
At the Paharganj Om Sai Plastic workshop, it’s one man’s job and one hour’s work as a 5-mm-thick acrylic sheet is cut into a 2 ft X 3 ft rectangle with the Ashok stambh embossed towards the base. Another sheet, of width 10 mm, is cut into a stand to hold the rectangle, which can then be placed on a table.
“The client sends the design on WhatsApp. We feed it into the machine,” says Akshay Rajput, 25. Not really impressed at the link that now connects him to the power corridors of the country, just 5 km away, he adds, “We are not bothered about what the sheets are called and where they go.” The unit has so far delivered 50 such sheets.
Few labourers wear masks at the workshop, occupying the first floor of a three-storey building. A hand sanitiser dispenser hangs on the wall but is hardly used.
Covid-19, however, hangs heavy in the air in this industrial area, housing many small units like Om Sai Plastic, which have seen demand nosedive.
“We are pitching to Secretary-level officers at the moment. They are the ones with a steady stream of visitors all day,” says Prashant Shukla, the owner of Hybrid Proximity, which has given the contract for the sneeze guards to a vendor, who in turn gets the job done at Om Sai Plastic.
Excited at his two-year-old Delhi-based start-up that specialises in augmented reality products getting this opportunity to “introduce ourselves to policymakers”, Shukla says he has been fielding queries since the first sheet was put up on the table of Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba on July 1, he says.
Apart from Gauba, the sneeze guards are being used by the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, P K Mishra, Secretaries of Defence, Finance, Food, MSME, the NITI Aayog CEO, and others. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s desk also has one, though it is not supplied by his firm.
Rajiv Khanna of Studio KIA, a Gurgaon-based company, has provided similar sheets to Rail Bhavan, including the office of Minister Piyush Goyal. “We are actually an architecture firm. But thanks to the pandemic, we are designing these products. What do you do when you don’t have an office room large enough for social distancing? That’s where this product comes in handy,” he says, adding that their clients include a multinational pharmaceutical company and banks.
Shukla says the orders for the sheets had come as a godsend, with Hybrid Proximity not getting much work post- lockdown. It had also pitched the concept of a VR-based zoo to the National Zoological Park, but the tender got cancelled. Shukla says they have got queries from the Army, the President’s Guards and, this week, an order from the Vice-President’s Secretariat.
Vivek Shukla, the 40-year-old owner of the Om Sai Plastic workshop, says people are learning to live with coronavirus. “How long can you be scared? Some of my labourers left for their villages in the lockdown. But now all have come back.”
One of them is 22-year-old Loknath Shukla, who had walked and hitch-hiked back to his village in Basti, Uttar Pradesh, over 700 km away, after the lockdown started. Working on a glow sign, he says he got back to Delhi on a train earlier this month to his old job.. “At least no one in my family has got corona, thank god for that,” he says.
“Bura haal hai (Times are bad),” says Vivek Shukla. While the sneeze guards, face shields and such pandemic-related items have got the unit some work, it depends on making glow signs, name plates etc, and business is far from back to normal. “I made 38,000 of these for an airline,” he adds, pointing to a huge pile of transparent face shields lying in a corner. “We couldn’t sustain given the very low rate we were being offered. They wanted us to give not just a face shield but also sanitiser pouches and masks in a pack for just Rs 14.50.”
Officials say it is a little disconcerting but they are getting used to the sneeze guards. “Sometimes I peek from the sides to get a good look at my visitors,” says an Additional Secretary. “These products will be there as long as the pandemic lasts… that’s all.”
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