These are trying times for Kerala as it struggles to recover from the devastating floods that drowned large parts of the state in August. The government estimated the economic loss due to the floods at over Rs 20,000 crore: Much of the infrastructure in the flood-affected districts will need to be rebuilt and standing crops in thousands of hectares have been destroyed. A massive voluntary effort involving thousands of ordinary citizens had boosted the state’s rescue operations during the floods and limited the loss of lives to about 300. A similar collective public action has facilitated the raising of funds and collection of material for the rehabilitation of flood victims and rebuilding of public infrastructure as well as private assets including houses.
It is in this context that Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan backed a proposal from some quarters in the civil society that salaried employees voluntarily contribute a month’s salary to the chief minister’s relief fund to enable resource mobilisation for rebuilding Kerala. However, the proposal, as it took the shape of a government order, has assumed coercive features. On Monday, the Kerala High Court, hearing a petition against Travancore Devaswom Board, observed that the “salary challenge” has lost its voluntary spirit and seems to be becoming an act of money-grab.
While the court has stayed the action of Malabar and Travancore devaswom boards to make salary contributions to flood relief compulsory, the state government could do well to rethink its proposal. The government order had clarified that contributions were not mandatory, but it also insisted that employees reluctant to contribute should inform the government in writing. This attempt to create a paper trail of an employee’s reluctance has shades of moral shaming and hence should be deemed a coercive act. Floods did not make a distinction between government and non-government employees.
A large number of Kerala’s five lakh plus state employees were affected as overflowing rivers and crumbling hills wreaked havoc on homesteads and livelihoods. Not many of them are so well-paid or rich enough to afford to let go of a month’s salary, even if spread over 10 months as the chief minister indicated, for flood rehabilitation even if they wish.
In fact, forcing people to cough up cash could kill the spirit of voluntary action that has so far driven the relief and rehabilitation efforts in the state. The move may also affect consumer spending: Retail trade in the state has already taken a hit after the floods washed away the Onam shopping season. Surely, the state government can think of more inventive avenues for resource mobilisation than unfairly squeeze a captive workforce.