The Prime Minister created a dedicated emergency fund in the wake of COVID- 19 pandemic. This fund recently came under backlash. The PMO appealed to the country for donations in light of the severe health and economic consequences posed by the COVID-19.
The PMO stated that donations to the fund would qualify as CSR activity and would be exempted from tax. This new fund is the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund. The PM CARES fund for short. The fund has received huge donations from individuals and organizations alike. The donors include companies like ONGC and Bharat petroleum.
A student from Bengaluru has recently filed an RTI application regarding the fund. The RTI seeks information about the formation of the fund.
The applicant wanted copies of the trust deeds of the fund. He also wanted all Orders and Notifications relating to its creation and operation. But the Public Information officer failed to disclose this information. Their answer was that the fund is not a public authority. Thus, the fund does not fall within the ambit of section 2(h) of the Right to Information Act, 2005.
The denial of the details of this fund created quite a controversy. This is especially because the Prime Minister is the Chairman of the Fund. Moreover, three cabinet ministers are its trustees. The opposition too has criticized the creation of this fund. Their main contention is that there already exists a similar fund for this purpose. This is the Prime Minister National Relief Fund. It is important to note that PMNRF serves the same purpose as PM CARES but with openness.
Earlier instances of rejection of the RTI application
A Noida resident filed the second application. This RTI sought information about the usage of PM CARES fund. The applicant also sought clarification on 12 other points about its formation. On 27th April, the PMO rejected his application as well. They replied that it is not possible to combine all the requests into a single application.
Further, they stated that the applicant needs to file these requests separately. The applicant must also pay for each request. Otherwise, the application would stand rejected.
A plea was filed in the Delhi High Court seeking to declare the PM CARES Fund as a ‘public authority’ under the RTI Act. Justice Navin Chawla conducted this hearing through video conferencing. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta represented the PMO at the trial. He said that he will file a response explaining why this petition should be quashed. The High Court listed the matter for further hearing on August 28th, 2020.
Public authority under the RTI Act
The question is, if the PM CARES fund is not a public authority then what exactly is a public authority? The RTI Act, 2005 defines a public authority. Any authority, body or institution of self-government established or constituted:
a) By or under the constitution.
b) By any other law made by parliament.
c) By any other law made by the state legislature.
d) By notification issued or order made by the appropriate government.
Declaring that the fund is not a public authority is quite problematic. For one, it is like keeping the citizens of the country under a shadow. It is every individual’s right to know how the fund is put up to use. They also have a right check that it is not misused since they too have contributed towards the fund. The fund uses the national emblem and the government domain name on the fund’s website. As mentioned before, three cabinet ministers are its trustees. Yet it is unclear why the fund does not fall within the scope of public authority.
Is the fund subject to audit?
The CAG of India, Rajiv Mehrishi has stated that his office will not audit the fund. This is because it is a charitable organisation. It is based on donations from individuals and corporations. There is also speculation that on 23rd April 2020, a company called M/s SARC & Associates was appointed as auditor for the fund. The company belongs to one Sunil Kumar Gupta who himself is a staunch RSS man. If this is true, it would be interesting to see how ‘independently’ the PM CARES fund is audited.
There are a few points that the PMO needs to clarify and a few questions that need be answered about the PM CARES fund. First, where any leaders of the opposition aware or consulted to create the fund? Second, under which Act was the fund created? Third, what led to the establishment of a brand-new fund despite the existence of the PMNRF fund since 1948? This fund serves the same purpose as the PM CARES fund. Fourth, did the PM and the trustees use due process to establish the fund? All these points need some clarity and transparency.
The citizens of the country have a right to know whether this fund was created on a shaky legal foundation. The government is duty-bound to disclose the information about the PM CARES fund. It will be interesting to see if the PM ‘cares’ enough to disclose this much deserved information about the fund.
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