Calcutta HC Raps Visva Bharati Varsity for ‘Forcing’ Employees to Donate to CM Relief Fund

New Delhi: Taking exception to Visva Bharati University’s decision to deduct a day’s salary from its employees to donate to the chief minister’s relief fund, West Bengal, after the Amphan cyclone of May 2020, the Calcutta high court observed that the university cannot do so without the consent of the employees, LiveLaw has reported.

The court was hearing a petition moved by professors of the university who were against the university’s “unilateral” decision. However, the court refrained from issuing a notice to the university for refunding the amount, which the petitioners sought in their plea.

As it has been more than a year since such a deduction was made, the court said it cannot do anything now as the said amount may already have been transferred to the donee and the money may have already been used in favour of the needy.

However, Justice Amrita Sinha, who was hearing the case, said, ” The employer neither has the power nor the authority to deduct salary or any portion thereof of an employee, unilaterally, in the garb of donation. A person cannot be forced to donate. The moment force is applied, the act of the donor does not remain voluntary, and it amounts to forcible deduction, which is grossly different from the term donation.”

After the Amphan cyclone ravaged parts of West Bengal, the registrar (acting) of the university issued a circular to its employees on May 24, 2020, stating that a decision was made to deduct one day’s salary of the employees towards the chief minister’s relief fund. Following this, another notice was sent to permanent employees to donate a day’s salary on May 29, 2020. The university administration cited Sections 6 and 14(3) and other provisions of the Visva-Bharati Act, 1951 (Act) enabling it to do so.

Also read: DU Teachers Allege VC Diverted Rs 4-Crore Staff Donations From PMNRF to PM CARES

The petitioners contended that after they received the first notice from the university administration about its decision, they requested university authorities, through their representation, that employees be given a choice in the matter. However, they said the university administration did not respond to their representation but sent another notice (on May 29) asking them to comply.

Hearing the matter, the court found fault with the university’s contention that Sections 6 and 14(3) and other provisions of the Visva-Bharati Act, 1951 enable it to deduct salaries.  “None of the above provisions gives any power to the University to unilaterally deduct any amount from the salary of an employee as donation”, the court observed.

The court clarified that “donation” per se refers to a “voluntary” act of the person who intends to donate, but it can never be done through force or coercion. Although it said it is a good thing for people to come forward and help those in need given that the country is going through an unprecedented crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it said, “providing help does not mean snatching away the legal right of an employee”.

“When the University was trying to provide aid to the needy and affected people, it ought to have adopted a better approach to set up a corpus for providing help, but should not have used a whip to deduct money from reluctant employees,” the court opined. It disposed of the petition after making the aforementioned observations and without passing any order.

Last year, Delhi University had deducted a day’s salary of its employees to donate it to the PM CARES fund to provide aid to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. When a professor of the university approached Delhi high court challenging the slashing of their salaries without consent, the court admonished the professor.

“This court is constrained to ask: wouldn’t a ‘stonehearted person’ only challenge the decision to deduct one-day’s salary for a pandemic?” the bench of Justices Manmohan and Sanjeev Narula had said, dismissing the petition.

Featured image: Calcutta high court. Photo: Sujay25/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

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