volunteers who stayed at the Shell Technology Centre in Bangalore

Living at the lab in India’s COVID-19 lockdown

States across India are starting to ease restrictions following eight weeks of lockdown to minimise the spread of COVID-19. For more than 50 days, a group of dedicated staff at the Shell Technology Centre in Bangalore volunteered to stay at the site to make sure it was ready to restart operations.

By Marcus George on May 29, 2020

On a humid but clear morning a vehicle carrying three people wearing gloves and masks makes its way through the deserted streets of Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, stopping only for the driver to show a movement permit at police roadblocks.

One of the passengers in the car is Venkat Nagaraju. He is making another of his regular visits to the Shell Technology Centre (STCB), which usually houses 1,300 staff mainly involved in research and development work critical to advances in the energy industry.

On March 24, the Indian government ordered a lockdown across the country to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, forcing nearly all STCB staff to work from home.

In line with Karnataka state regulations, many companies with major technology and innovation centres in Bangalore – including Shell, Intel, GE and Samsung – were allowed to continue essential operations only.

The state’s strict lockdown stopped nearly all movement in and around the city. So, Shell India asked for volunteers. Those who stepped forward saw the opportunity to continue working while feeling more protected from COVID-19. In total, around 60 dedicated IT and technical staff chose to stay at STCB, to keep systems ticking over in readiness for operations to restart.

“We first looked at whether we could shut down the whole site but this is not a normal office. There are critical systems which can’t be switched off and started up easily,” says Nagaraju, a facilities manager for Shell India and a member of STCB’s business continuity team.

“The biggest challenge here in Bangalore was obtaining permission to take critical staff to work and back. So, we were hugely thankful to those who volunteered to stay,” he adds.

India’s tech hub

With a population of 1.4 billion, India is the world’s second most populous country. Like other major Indian cities Bangalore was designated a COVID-19 red zone, meaning the strictest level of lockdown. Activity and movement almost completely ground to a halt, severely impacting the city’s technology sector, one of the largest in Asia.

In normal times, STCB hosts research in advanced biofuels, liquefied natural gas, 3D geological modelling, data analysis, engineering design, bitumen and enhanced computational research. It leads an innovative project known as IH2, which turns agricultural residues and other waste into transport fuel through a unique chemical process.

In late May some employees were allowed to return and a number of laboratories restarted activities. But for over 50 days, nearly all research work was on hold.

The team living on site needed to maintain gas and chemical systems, a 66 kilowatt substation and complex lab equipment that couldn’t be powered down. They also had to maintain high-performance computing servers so that STCB staff working from home could access all IT applications to continue working.

Within days of the lockdown starting, the site operations team had converted meeting rooms into makeshift dormitories, organised catering services and set up laundry facilities. Two medical staff also stayed on site to care for the 60 committed colleagues.

The team also implemented strict measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside STCB. Vehicles and goods entering the site are sprayed down with disinfectant.

A worker sprays disinfectant on goods
A worker sprays disinfectant on goods before they enter the technology centre

STCB’s business continuity team introduced some low-tech innovations so that staff could minimise contact with surfaces and prevent the spread of germs. They include a hand sanitiser dispenser and a water dispenser both operated by foot, as well as a simple tool which can hook onto a door handle, to open it or push it shut without contact.

Keeping staff safe

The team living on site from March 25 wore blue T-shirts to ensure its members did not mix with day visitors, who could be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. Day visitors had to wear high visibility jackets and follow social distancing rules.

Prasanth Raj Savarapu, an STCB site co-ordinator, was one of the blue team members. “I chose to stay at STCB so I can continue working and it also made me feel safer than living at home in Bangalore,” he says.

“Mentally I was prepared for a two to three-month stay. I used to join camps with the National Cadet Corps for several weeks when I was a student. Being away from family and living with new people was great preparation.”

Over the weeks life at STCB continued to improve, with recreational activities such as badminton and chess helping staff to pass the time. Regular check-in meetings with visiting Shell managers helped maintain morale and monitor their physical and mental welfare.

Every day Prasanth played badminton for an hour to help him relax. But staying at the centre had some tough moments. He had daily video calls with his wife and three-year-old son, but has not seen them for 10 weeks.

In early March, they were on holiday some 700 kilometres away in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Prasanth came back to work and then the nationwide lockdown was imposed.

“I feel really sad not seeing my family,” he says. “I could have chosen to leave STCB but, with travel to other states restricted, there is no way I can reach them right now.”

Like his fellow team members, Prasanth is now back at home in Bangalore but restrictions on travelling between states remain in place so he has not yet been reunited with his family.

He says is proud to have assisted in maintaining STCB during its moment of need. “Ultimately coronavirus is also a major challenge for the technology centre and I volunteered because I wanted to play my part to help it through these times.”

Shell’s other technology centres

Shell operates two other technology centres, in Houston and Amsterdam. Both have continued activities during the COVID-19 pandemic but only business-critical ones.

Shell Technology Centre in Houston is the largest of the three. Currently, its business-critical work includes catalyst testing for refining and chemicals manufacturing purposes. Experimental operations have continued in support of commercial products, customers and lubricant manufacturing/blending facilities and also Shell’s detergents business. And analytical services have continued to support Shell’s US manufacturing sites and offshore operations.

At the Shell Technology Centre in Amsterdam, around 140 colleagues remain on site - out of 1,200 normally - to support catalyst testing and maintaining long-term experimentation to avoid losing data and having to restart activities from the beginning.

At both sites, staff have adopted strict personal hygiene protocols to ensure staff can work safely. These include social distancing, wearing face masks and gloves and tailoring working schedules, such as some teams working on alternate days. Team members have collaborated to overcome practical challenges and adopt new ways of working.

Both locations have contributed resources and skills to local communities. Amsterdam has donated PPE suits, safety goggles and lab coats to local hospitals and medical centres. It has also 3D printed parts to connect a snorkelling mask to a filter system for protective medical face masks. STCH has donated more than 250 laptops to a local school district to support high school graduating seniors with their final online semester.

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