Kerala’s Salary Challenge: An Aid for the Reconstruction of the State?

In the aftermath of what is considered one of the worst floods in the century, Kerala is still reeling under the devastation caused by the deluge that affected all the fourteen districts of the state. A month after the disaster struck, the state is slowly recuperating with rehabilitation and reconstruction in progress. Complete reconstruction of the state still seems to be a faraway goal, considering the humongous economic loss the state has suffered and the mammoth task of rebuilding the flood-hit areas, public infrastructure and regaining economic stability. It is in the light of this economic crisis that the Kerala Government introduced the Salary Challenge, which has received mixed opinions from the public and much flak from the Opposition.

On September 11, 2018 the Kerala Government issued an order requesting all government employees to donate their salary for the month of September to the Chief Minister’s Distress Fund (CMDRF) to help reconstruct the flood affected areas. The employees can also transfer from the Provident Fund (PF), amount equivalent to the gross salary for the month of September and even surrender earn leave of 30 days as part of the challenge. This Salary Challenge does not force anyone, rather requests the employees to make their contribution; transferring the amount as full or partial installment for 10 months. Moreover, any amount donated to the CMDRF prior to this by the employee would be deducted from the salary money that would be donated. People unwilling to pay could be exempted from this challenge if they submitted a refusal letter.

The estimated amount required for reconstruction in the state is Rs. 30,000 crores, out of which Rs. 10,000 crores is expected to be collected through revenue income and the contribution of the salary challenge. It is expected that around Rs. 3800 crores could be collected through the salary challenge. Though this decision by the state government is lauded by many, attempts are being made to paint this challenge as forceful extortion of money by the government. Though the government is seen to encourage the employees to contribute their salaries, the decision is left to individual’s discretion. Moreover, the various provisions made available to ease the mode of transfer enables one to contribute to the flood-ravaged lives effectively without it adversely affecting the former’s economic condition.

Many of the newspaper reports have distorted this ‘challenge’ to make it seem more like ‘compulsion’, sensitizing the issue to incite negative responses from the public who are already burdened with the aftermath of floods. The predominant argument is that it is highly insensitive on the part of the government to demand money from the people of the state who are adversely hit by the floods. Some are perturbed at the fact that though the salary challenge extends to every earning member of the state, regardless of private or government sector, only the government employees are obligated to submit a refusal letter stating their unwillingness to pay. A refusal letter, they say “is a psychological approach to compel people to donate the money without direct coercion. Fear of ostracisation among colleagues would force even the unwilling employees to pay”.

The negative coverage of the challenge by the media and the rumors spread by the Opposition regarding the ‘compulsive’ nature of the challenge has resulted in the sowing of seeds of suspicion and discontent among the people. Many are trying to politicize the challenge claiming that it is just another gimmick of the ruling government to indulge in corruption. The news report of a government employee being given a punishment transfer for speaking out against the salary challenge on social media has created fear among those unwilling to pay. To dampen the spirit of the challenge further, there are rumours doing the rounds on social media about how one would later be retributed if they choose not to contribute to the Salary Challenge.

Dr. T. M. Thomas Issac, Finance Minister of Kerala, in one of his Facebook posts had mentioned similar orders issued by the Airports Authority of India and the Ministry of Railways asking their employees to contribute one day salary to CMDRF and Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF). Highlighting the voluntary nature of these two orders, Dr. Isaac voiced his concern over politicizing the Kerala Salary Challenge. Despite the negative publicity surrounding the challenge, as per the reports on September 22, about 80% of the government staff have positively responded to the salary challenge (The Hindu).

Statistics regarding the economic loss and debt in the state would convince anyone of the need for a challenge like this. With an amount as high as Rs. 30,000 crores to be assembled in a short span of time for the reconstruction of infrastructure is challenging considering the cold shoulder attitude the state has been receiving from the central government. It has come upon the people to do the needful to rebuild the flood-battered state. It is only reasonable on the part of the government to request its earning employees with secured jobs to help the rest of the thousands who have been rendered homeless and jobless after the floods.

One of the valid criticisms against the challenge is that it has not considered the government employees who themselves have been financially crippled and lost their property during the floods. It would have been more appropriate had they been excluded from the challenge altogether than them going through the trouble of submitting the refusal letter. However, this minor drawback in the salary challenge should not be allowed to hinder the greater goal it is trying to achieve.

In the coming days, we would probably witness the Kerala government proposing similar measures involving public support and contribution to pool in money for the reconstruction of the state. The Finance Minister has already proposed the idea of crowd-funding, where interested individuals, organisations or corporate companies could be part of schemes to contribute in the rebuilding of an area or a section allocated to them. This could include sponsoring the reconstruction activities of a given village or a certain number of houses or buildings, rather than donating to relief funds. This would ensure more direct participation of the public in rebuilding the state.

At this point, engaging in political slandering and discrediting the efforts at collecting required funds for the state through proposals like the Salary Challenge and crowd-funding would only slacken the reconstruction of the state which is trying to regain its economic stability. Apart from this, in a moral sense, this Salary Challenge presents us with an opportunity to give back to the society that is grappling with the aftermath of the floods that wreaked havoc across Kerala.

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