Finance Minister T M Thomas Isaac on Thursday said the 'Salary Challenge' would be optional but made it clear that widespread reluctance among government employees could force the government to think of drastic measures like even salary cuts.
On the one hand the finance minister made an earnest appeal to employees to take part in the challenge and then, quickly switching his attitude, he warned them of the consequences of ignoring the challenge.
“Only those with the mind to contribute need to. We don't intend to force anyone,” Isaac said.
But then came the warning. “The situation is extremely serious. Not just in Kerala but in other states, too. Telengana has cut half the salary of government employees. Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra have decided to withhold half the salary payment. If things continue like this, Kerala too would be forced to think of such harsh measures,” Isaac said.
The finance minister said Kerala was not getting even one-fourth of what it would have in normal circumstances. “Our GST revenue is almost zero. There is only the movement of foodgrains for which there is no GST. There is no revenue from lottery and liquor. Motor vehicle taxes have been postponed. It is not as if any sale is going on. During April, we are not expecting anything from stamp duty either. We have never faced such a situation before,” Isaac said.
Unlike in 2018, there will be no insistence on an 'unwillingness' certificate. Both the High Court and Supreme Court had found it unfair last time. Isaac, too, hinted that it would not be possible for the government to include the unwillingness clause in the new Salary Challenge order because of what the courts had said.
Still, he has unofficially conveyed, and in a sterner manner, what he would be unable to do officially through a government order. “They will have to cooperate. Or else we will have to think of what to do,” Isaac said.
In other words, technically there will be no pressure on the employees to part with their salary but practically there would be.
“I believe that employees in Kerala are politically evolved. My request to them is to willingly contribute a month's salary so that we do not have to think of anything drastic like a salary cut,” he said.
And then came perhaps his most ominous statement. “It is the responsibility of employees to ensure that the Salary Challenge is a success,” he said. Left unsaid, but still loud and clear, was this: "Or else they will suffer.”
He also said that if employees were contributing, it has to be nothing less than their full monthly salary. He said it could also be donated in 12 instalments like in 2018. Certain service organisations had said employees should be allowed to contribute what they could.
Isaac said if a fixed amount was not stated, employees tend to contribute less. “Experience shows that employees with bigger means paid less,” he said. Isaac said the government would hold further discussions with employees' organisations to work out the details of the 'Salary Challenge'. He said any arrangement that could lessen the immediate burden on the government could be thought of while implementing the challenge.
He also said that the salaries for the month of March would be disbursed without fail. He made it sound like the government's side of the bargain. “This shows that the government has no intention of causing any difficulties for its employees,” he said.
Now, the ball is in the employees' court.