Salary challenge: Will flood-hit govt employees have to say yes or no?

Salary challenge: Will flood-hit govt employees have to say yes or no?
Kerala witnessed one of the most severe floods in its history in August.

Thiruvananthapuram: The LDF government's salary challenge seeks to divide employees strictly into two groups. You are either willing to contribute to flood relief, or not. By extension, you are either willing to help the suffering or you are not. No one will exist in between.

But this ruthless black or white binary, which has echoes of George W Bush's 'you are either with us or with the terrorists' declaration, has a problem. What about the government employees and teachers in flood-affected areas? What if they, struggling to rebuild their devastated lives, don't have the money to spare? Or what if they are still willing to pay, but an amount lesser than a month's salary? Will they, too, have to sign the 'declaration of unwillingness'? The government has not addressed the issue.

“We had raised the issue with the finance minister during the discussions he held with union leaders. But a decision is yet to be taken,” said P Honey, president of the CPM-affiliated Kerala Secretariat Employees Association. Another senior KSEA leader, Bijukuttan, said the government should issue an order exempting employees in flood-affected areas from signing the 'declaration of unwillingness'.

Ruthless challenge

Government servants in affected areas is not a negligible number. Nearly two lakh of the 5.30 lakh government employees and teachers in the state belong to the seven worst-affected districts of Alappuzha, Ernakulam, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta, Thrissur, Wayanad and Idukki.

Have a look at the plight of a lab assistant, Rini, who works in a government dispensary in Thiruvananthapuram but has her house in Chengannur. Her one-storey house, though flooded, is now fit to live. But all the things she and her husband had accumulated over the years – refrigerator, television, cooker, dining table – were washed away. She has two kids, the boy, studying for engineering, is in a hostel in Ernakulam. Her daughter is in her class XII.

Rini's gross monthly salary is Rs 44,725. Her net salary - after deductions like provident fund (Rs 4000), group insurance scheme (Rs 500), three LIC schemes totalling Rs 2008, two state life insurance schemes of Rs 150 each, provident fund loan repayment (Rs 2100) – is Rs 35,817. From this, she pays a housing loan of Rs 20,081, and KSFE instalment of Rs 7500. Eventually, what Rini gets to take home is Rs 8236 a month. Now, here is what the government will deduct if she is willing to forego her salary for three days: Rs 4,328. Meaning, she will have less than Rs 4000 left, and this will be her share for the next 10 months.

Even gazetted officers in affected areas have a hard time. Take Satheesh John Manikkassery, for instance, who lives at Paravur in Ernakulam district. He is a deputy director in the Local Fund Audit Department. He has a gross salary of Rs 97,000. After all the deductions, he pockets a net of Rs 48,000.

Thomas Isaac
Kerala finance minister T M Thomas Isaac

Manikkassery was in the hospital for a serious cardiac issue when the floods struck. Like Rini's, his house too has been cleaned. “You should see, it is sparkling clean,” he said. But all that was inside had been damaged beyond repair. “Now I am told that the house is structurally unsafe,” Manikkassery said. The house has to be strengthened, and everything right from kitchen utensils to the computer has to be purchased. He has a son who is studying in Bangalore. “Still I am willing to contribute but the government will not accept anything less than a month's salary. This is unfair,” he said.

Say no, thanks

A top source in the finance department said affected people like Rini and Manikkassery need not worry. “We have given them the option to say no”. But Manikkassery is unconvinced. “Signing a declaration saying we are not willing to contribute would make us look insensitive. It is embarrassing for a senior officer like me,” he said.

Then there is the fear factor. Anilraj, a CPM area secretary and a finance department official, was transferred from his post on Thursday soon after he put up a WhatsApp note saying he was unable to spare his salary. Anilraj had said that instead his wife, who is also a government employee, would pay. Still, there was swift action, and this served to confirm the opposition charge that the government was attempting to intimidate employees.

“If a CPM area secretary was not spared, just imagine what would happen to ordinary employees who say no,” asked T Sreekumar, the president of Congress-affiliated Kerala Secretariat Association.

However, the finance minister was quick to undo the damage. He soon issued an order reinstating Anilraj in his original position. Anilraj's removal is now described as an emotional response by the CPM. “He worked in the very section that came out with the salary challenge order on September 11. And for him to work against the policy angered the CPM leadership,” a top CPM leader said.

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