23/04/2020 6:30 PM IST

Salary Cuts, Sprinklr Deal: 4 Controversial Kerala Govt Decisions During Coronavirus Pandemic

Kerala government on Wednesday announced it would deduct one month’s worth of its employees’ salary over the next five months.

Journalists wearing surgical masks stand outside a government general hospital in Thrissur, Jan. 30, 2020. 

The Kerala government has deservedly received much praise from national and international media outlets and commentators for its prompt response to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, in recent weeks, the state’s opposition has managed to put the government on the backfoot politically by raising uncomfortable questions. 

Here are four contentious moves that the Kerala government has made recently:

1. Salary cut for government employees

On Wednesday, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government announced that it would deduct one month’s worth of its employees’ salary over the next five months.

The state will cut six days of salary every month for the next five months for its employees, as well those in public sector units, government-aided and quasi-government institutions, as contribution to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund. Employees with monthly salary less than Rs 20,000 have been exempt from the order.

The salaries of ministers, MLAs and members of various boards will also be cut by 30% for the next year, CM Pinarayi Vijayan announced.

The state had initially put forward as ‘Salary Challenge’ as a voluntary measure for employees, that reportedly received a lukewarm response. When the government first mooted this in 2018 during the floods, several employees’ associations had moved court against the proposal. The Kerala High Court had stayed the government’s order and its decision was upheld by the Supreme Court.

According to Hindustan Times, this time, the state government doctors’ association has opposed the move, saying it would demotivate overworked doctors and health employees. The medical officers’ association and the medical college teachers’ association have asked for frontline workers to be exempt from the cut.

ALSO READ: How Kerala Is Protecting Its Health Workers From Coronavirus

Meanwhile, Congress has raised the issue of CMDRF funds being misappropriated by certain CPI(M) workers in 2018. The workers had later been sacked by the party and arrested in the case.

CM Vijayan has defended the salary cut move saying, “The pandemic has literally crippled our economy. We need money for health sector and other emergency services.”

He also said on Wednesday that as the employer, the state could decide on what to pay its employees.

CPM MLA VK Prasanth told The Telegraph that the centre had still not paid Kerala’s GST dues.

Meanwhile, Pinarayi was accused of political vendetta after the Vigilance and Anti Corruption Bureau registered a case against Indian Union Muslim League MLA KM Shaji a day after he questioned the use of CMRDF funds. The CM, however, said that the case against Shaji had been in progress for months.

2. The Sprinklr deal

The Sprinklr deal has dominated headlines in Kerala almost as much as the coronavirus outbreak ever since opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala raised questions regarding it two weeks ago.

The state’s IT department is using a mobile application developed by Sprinklr which allows health workers to record details of quarantined citizens to check for symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

The Congress-led UDF has alleged that the tool breaches the privacy of individuals and raised concerns over where the data is stored, how citizens can initiate legal action if the contract is breached and the way the deal was passed by the state government. (Read more here, here and here.)

On Thursday, Chennithala moved the Kerala High Court against the deal. 

The Kerala government has already been responding to questions raised by court in relation to a petition filed by a lawyer alleging foul play in the contract. The state government has said that the data was stored on government servers and there were sufficient clauses in the contract to give the government complete control over the data.

The government has also said that the data is obtained with consent of the people and used only for the purpose of containing Covid-19. It also said that no data would be accessible to Sprinklr once the contract is terminated.

While Vijayan has been criticised for refusing to answer questions regarding the allegations during his daily press conferences, the CM on Wednesday told reporters that the government was fully cooperating with the court during hearings on the deal and that the Opposition should bring forward evidence of wrongdoing.

He also asked Malayalam media outlets why their investigations into the allegations had not been able to find any proof of misconduct.

The state government has meanwhile appointed a two-member committee to look into the contract and submit a report.

ALSO READ: Why Kerala Govt Is Under Fire For Its Covid-19 Data Contract With Sprinklr

3. Telemedicine service

The state government’s telemedicine initiative for Malayalis abroad came under scrutiny after Congress leader VD Satheesan claimed that QuikDr, the product providing the service, was receiving sensitive health data, including the medical history of the people. Satheesan raised questions about the company’s origins and its lack of experience.

In a statement earlier this week, Safil Sunny, CEO of Tranzmeo IT Solution Pvt. Ltd, which developed QuikDr, said he was “disappointed” by the controversy.

“The database is hosted in a server located at Kerala State Data Centre and remains completely under the ownership of Kerala State IT Mission,” he said.

The company said it had been incorporated as a start-up in 2017 and was registered with Startup India and the Kerala Startup Mission.

“Since QuikDr was a product supported and evaluated by the Kerala Startup Mission, it was recommended by the mission to Kerala IT Mission and the product was selected after due evaluation,” the company’s statement said.

4. Liquor prescriptions for those with alcohol withdrawal during lockdown

Last month, the Kerala High Court stayed the state government’s decision to provide alcohol to people with withdrawal symptoms based on prescriptions from doctors.

The government has passed the order despite widespread criticism from doctors’ bodies, which called the move ‘unscientific’ and ‘unethical’. Doctors from the Kerala chapter of the Indian Medical Association and the Kerala Government Medical Officers’ Association said they would not provide such prescriptions. The two associations also moved court against the order.

A judge hearing the case had called it “a recipe for disaster”. Read more here.