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ERNAKULAM: The Kerala High Court on Tuesday ruled that financial difficulty cannot be a ground for deferring or cutting salaries of government employees, staying the state's move to do so.

With revenues shrinking because of the lockdown, in place since 25 March, states such as Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Odisha, as well as the central government, have announced pay cuts. The court order could have a bearing on them as well.

The state government had told the court that since 5,000 crore was spent to battle covid-19 in March, and as the lockdown has led to a severe financial crisis, paying full salaries will be quite difficult.

The court said the state government's fight to contain the pandemic is lauded "all over the world", but the legal framework cannot be ignored. Justice Bechu Kurian Thomas said it was a vested right of every individual to receive salary for the work discharged and refuted claims that the state has powers under the Disaster Management Act to deny salaries.

"Article 300A will include within its purview 'salary' also, as a property, at least prima facie. Kerala Financial Code is only dealing with the procedure for payment of salary. The submission of the Advocate General that the government has the power to delay the disbursement of the payment of salary by an executive order cannot be countenanced," the court order said.

"However much I tried to bring the impugned order within some framework of law, I could not find any basis for any such order in any of the statutes. Neither in the Epidemic Diseases Act, as amended by the 2020 ordinance, nor in the Disaster Management Act could I seek solace to justify issuance of the order," it added.

As Kerala's revenue has collapsed by over 90%, the state government in a 23 April order had said that all employees earning more than 20,000 in a month will be subjected to a six-day payment deferment which will continue for the next five months. The government had argued the move was designed to curb expenditure except for priority sectors as healthcare and social welfare.

There was, however, no clarification on restoring deferred payments. Earlier, the government had sought one-month's salary as donation to fight covid-19.

The high court order is a setback for the Kerala government, which is staring at fiscal chaos as it has to manage increased health, welfare costs and salary payments, at a time when its will probably garner just 250 crore compared to the 2,500 crore in a month.

Finance minister Thomas Isaac has indicated that the government is likely to appeal against the order.

"We haven't yet received the order copy. We will decide on the next step, if it has to be appealed or not. If this has been stayed, would other states' and central pay cuts also be stayed? I'm not commenting on the order but such questions remain."

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