'Salary Challenge' for Kerala government employees gets cabinet nod

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The second 'Salary Challenge' proposed by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has received the cabinet's approval.

The proposal was to ask government employees to transfer one month's salary to the Chief Minister's Distress Relief Fund. Whether this is compulsory or optional is still not clear.

Top government sources said the contribution would be made mandatory. Unlike during the 2018 floods when employees who were unable to contribute had only to give a 'certificate of unwillingness', at the most an embarrassment, this time unwilling employees it is said would be made to pay a heavy price.

The Chief Minister had already given a hint that employees in the lowest salary brackets - peons, sweepers, cooks, casual workers and contract employees - would be spared.

There are also employees at the non-gazetted level, like single mothers or single-income earners with differently-abled kids or dependents suffering from terminal illness, who could forego a month's salary only by sacrificing emergency needs. It has been agreed in principle to exempt such employees.

But at the moment there is no mechanism to identify such stressed employees at the middle and lower levels. Region-wise committees of officer-level representatives to pick employees who should be spared the rigours of the 'Salary Challenge' is under serious consideration.

However, such details of implementation have still not been spelled out. It will be done after the Chief Minister holds a second round of discussion with leaders of service organisations. The Chief Minister had carried out a preliminary round of discussion on March 30 during which he explained the miserable state of Kerala's finances.

It is said that organisations, cutting across party lines, acknowledged the need for everyone to pitch in. But many were sceptical whether a large chunk of employees could afford to sacrifice a full month's salary. Leaders of opposition, service organisations also reminded the Chief Minister that it would be unhelpful if the proposed salary challenge was sought to be implemented in a high-handed way like it was last time.

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, too, said that employees should not be forced to part with their salary.

As if to lead by example, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan have contributed Rs one lakh each to the CMDRF. Cabinet ministers have been asked to contribute Rs one lakh each.

The last salary challenge, announced in the wake of the 2018 floods, could not mobilise what was originally intended and had earned a bad name for the Pinarayi government. The employee was given the option to pay the amount in full or in ten installments. They were also given the option of surrendering their earned leave equivalent to their one month's salary.

Then, the government had targeted Rs 3800 crore. Later, it revised the expectations to Rs 2000 crore and finally ended up pocketing only Rs 1220 crore. Except for the Secretariat staff, other government employees, most notably teachers and policemen, were cold to the challenge.

It was the LDF government's move to virtually make the sacrifice compulsory that had left many employees opposed to the challenge. In what was obviously an attempt to shame, the government insisted on a “certificate of unwillingness” from those employees who were not willing to contribute.

First the High Court found the “certificate of unwillingness” unjust. “There is no way to differentiate between those who chose not to donate their salary despite having money, and those who chose not to because they genuinely did not have enough money to afford such a donation,” it said.

Later, the Supreme Court upheld the HC verdict. “There is no need for those who refuse to give money to humiliate themselves by giving in a certificate. Plus they have no guarantee that the collected money would be used for relief efforts. It's for the state government to instil in them such a belief,” the SC had said.

The 'unwillingness' clause was taken out but by then the damage was done.

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