The Kerala High Court on Tuesday ordered a two-month stay on the state’s decision to defer part of the salaries of government employees due to the adverse economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bar and Bench reported. The court said this could, prima facie, amount to a denial of the right to property.

On Wednesday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had announced that the state government would defer the salaries of its employees for six days per month from April to August to overcome the crisis. The deferment would apply to employees with a gross monthly salary of above Rs 20,000, in public sector units, government-aided and quasi-government institutions, he said.

Various government employee associations had challenged the decision in the High Court.

Justice Bechu Kurian, who heard the petitions, said every individual has the right to receive a salary. “Payment of salary is certainly not a matter of bounty,” he observed. “Article 300A of the Constitution, which confers a right to property, will include within its purview ‘salary’ also [as] a property, at least prima facie.”

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Kurian said the state government’s submission that it has the power to delay the disbursement of salaries by a few months through an executive order “cannot, in the face of law”, be accepted. He observed that he could not find any statutory basis for the deferment of salaries, neither in the Epidemic Diseases Act, nor in the Disaster Management Act.

The judge further said that the Kerala government’s efforts were being lauded across the world, and it had spent several crores of rupees during the crisis, Live Law reported. “However laudable and appreciable the acts of the state may be, when this court is called upon to decide a matter affecting the vested rights of citizens, the court cannot ignore the legal framework,” he added.

SC issues notice on private employers’ plea

Meanwhile, in the Supreme Court, a bench of Justices NV Ramana, Sanjay Kishan Kaul and BR Gavai heard the petitions by three private companies against the Centre’s order to pay full wages to workers despite the ongoing lockdown in place to contain the spread of Covid-19. The bench gave the Centre two weeks to respond to the pleas.

One of the petitioners, textile company Nagreeka Exports, had claimed it suffered losses of around Rs 1.5 crore due to the lockdown till the plea was filed, yet it had to pay around Rs 1.75 crore to its employees due to the Centre’s instructions.

On March 29, the Ministry of Home Affairs had issued guidelines to states and Union Territories, and had asked them to ensure that all employers pay wages to their workers on the due date, without any deduction, for the period the establishments are closed during the lockdown.

On Monday, the top court had asked the Centre to respond to another petition challenging the layoffs and salary cuts by some media organisations during the lockdown. The court had observed that the matter needed urgent hearing.

Also read: Layoffs, salary cuts by media houses ‘serious issue’, says SC, asks Centre to respond

The country has been in a state of lockdown since March 25 as a way to contain the spread of the pandemic. This has hurt economic activity, but the Centre, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, has repeatedly urged businesses not to deduct wages of employees.