PM Cares Fund and RTI

Reading time: 8-10 minutes.

The Chinese city (Wuhan) originated disease COVID-19 named by WHO, has became a global pandemic & terrorized the world to the extent that it is now termed as the second name for “death”. The WHO gave it a temporary name new/novel corona virus 2019. It was necessary as without any official name the danger arose of people giving it names likes the china/chinese virus. Its outbreak was so sudden that the scientists named it as virus: SARS-COVID-2 i.e, the severe acute respiratory syndrome as it has some similarities with the SARS pandemic which occurred between 2002-2005.

According to the Press Information Bureau of India, the first case of the Novel Coronavirus in India was identified on 30th January 2020 in the state of Kerala. But eventually, the infection spread with a continuous chain of patients across India, and today there are more than 2.5 lakh cases in India.

Though the deaths are around 7000 thus making a recovery rate of more than 47% with a number of 1.28 lakhs. Since the 24th of march 2020 the country was under a complete lockdown in phases which kept extending again and again. Finally, after lockdown- 4, India was finally unlocked on June 8, 2020, with relaxations in both green and red zone. COVID-19 puts contradictions, complications, superstitions, and mass strain on economical, social, and political spheres, by affecting the primary sector ; labourers of both organised and unorganised sector of the urban centres. Million lost their jobs and had hardly anything to eat. These people out of fear started migrating in the worst conditions possible. They also makes up 60% of the total population of India.

Role of Government and the aim of  PM Cares : –

The government of India took reigns in their own hands and provided all the free medical health to the patients initially and provided many financial relaxations, as it is well established in the preamble that India is a welfare state. This pandemic brought people together with empathy and people showed generosity by donating food and other essential items to the needy people and donated money to provide financial help.

The government was also not far behind, the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) was made on 28th March 2020 to provide relief during this pandemic.  It helps in combating and containment efforts against this outbreak of coronavirus and other emergency situations. The Prime Minister of India is its ex officio chairman and its trustees include other ministers of the cabinet.

The fund was open to all citizens who willingly wanted to donate including the government, it’s staff, and agencies (By cutting donations from their salaries automatically ) The donations could be made by using digital payment apps such as Paytm and google pay.The minimum donation was 10 INR and the maximum was in lakhs. These donations are exempted from all taxes & falls under corporate social responsibility by an order of the ordinance.

On 20th may 2020 the fund had approximately INR 10,000 Crores. Under section 80G of the Income Tax Act, any contribution to this fund before 30th June 2020 would qualify for a tax deduction. The first allocation of the fund was disclosed the public on May 13th, which said that approximately out of 3,100 crores, some 2,000 crores were spent on the purchase of 50,000 ventilators, 1000 crores for the support of migrant workers and the rest 100 crores for support for the funding of COVID-19 vaccine research and development.

The fund and its donations

Theoretically and practically the fund aims to extend the availability of quality treatment and encourage research to eliminate coronavirus. The PM urged all to donate, but eventually, after two months the amount stood at approximately 10,000 crores, which was collected upon the soul strength and prestige, which was lent by the Hon’ble Prime minister’s office. But eventually, a question began to arise in people’s minds, that when there is already a Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund, then why do we have another fund. In PMNRF too some donations were being made along with PM CARES funds. Moreover, the PMNRF had a pre-existing amount in it beforehand. The people began to question the composition and objectives of PM CARES fund. As the corpus has been created by the largely from the donations of the general public at large and public sector undertakings, central and state ministries, contributions from state and central government itself and departments and even the form the salaries of armed personnel force, all civil servants and members of the judiciary and other organs of the government, it is their right to know about the funds collected.

The high turn of questions

Finally, on April 1, 2020, a RTI petition was filed by Harsha Kandukuri an LLM law student from Azim Premji University Bengaluru. Apart from his also any other RTIs were filed by other people.  He said that even the victims of COVID-19 have a right to know about the information of this fund as they needed funds to fight this fatal pandemic and who can not position themselves to enforce their fundamental rights of getting medical treatment (Article 21 of the Indian Constitution) and being financially supported. Thus it is felt necessary to know the information on this fund.

He seeks to attain copies of the trust deed of the fund and all other relevant government orders, circulars, and notifications related to its functioning and formation. When Mr. Khandukuri did not receive a response within 30 days, he appeared before the High Court of Delhi, wanting better transparency not he PM CARES Fund by bringing it under the horizon of the Right to Information Act. Another applicant Vikrant Togad filed an application under the RTI act  and sought for the reply on all his 12 points. The PM on 6 days sent a reply refusing to disclose any information saying that the applications contain requests on many and varied topics of which the information is confidential and hence could not be shared with the general public.

The supreme court of India earlier dismissed a PIL filed by Manohar Lal Sharma as misconceived, which questioned the legality and constitutionality of PM CARES Fund. The plea asked  transfer of  donations to the Consolidated Fund of India. It was claimed that the fund is not a ‘public authority’ within the ambit of section 2(h) of the RTI Act 2005. But here it can give rise to a contradiction that if the fund is not a public authority does the PM means that the PM CARES fund is not created by the government? and the government does not control it? This seems to be highly improbable. Incidents have come up where frauds were booked by  Delhi Police for making various fake SBI accounts of PM CARES.

The aversion and reluctance of trustees in providing pieces of information on the management of the fund raised serious questions, suspicion, and apprehension since the fund is for a public cause. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s office earlier clarified that it wouldn’t audit PM CARES as it stands as a charitable organization. Moreover, the office said that PMNRF too can not be audited by CAG but can be done by an independent auditor outside of the government. The division bench of the Delhi High Court had a differing opinion that whether PMNRF is a public authority under the RTI Act of not. The matter has been forwarded to the chief justice of the court and wherein the decision is pending.

The Prime Minister’s Office has denied sharing any information regarding the funds, by simply stating that the fund is not a public authority, but in actuality, it gives out another contradiction as the name, control, usage of the emblem, composition of the trust and government domain, this all signifies that it is a public authority. The fear of the funds being misused is not uncanny. There are accusations that the fund is just a way to collect money at this time when the public is very sympathetic. T

he ambiguity does not stop here, as according to facts, a Russian arms firm also donated 2 million dollars to PM CARES Fund. It was stated by the PMO citing the CBSE & others vs Aditya Bandhopadhyay & others: that “indiscriminate and impractical demands under RTI Act for disclosure of all and sundry information would be counterproductive”. 

Certainly, the PMO’s response does not comply with either the law or the central information commission decisions. The PMO also wrote that “It is not open to the applicant under the RTI Act to bundle a series of requests into one application unless these requests are treated separately and paid for accordingly.”

Also, ex- chief informant commissioner Mr. Shailesh Gandhi stated that the given verdicts have no ‘legal basis’ for limiting the scope of RTI applications to only one subject or seeking any additional fees on multiple subjects.

 Conclusion

The PMO, in contrast to the opinions of the judges of the high court and supreme court, the PM CARES fund and its trustees have preferred darkness over the sunshine. Given that the control over a body should be substantial by the appropriate government and not just merely a supervisory or regulatory effect.

But the manoeuvre of the fund shows complete opposite and hence if we talk factually, then the fund seems to delay or tries to hide the information which in fact shows their authoritarian and stern reluctance for transparency . This stands against the principles of Indian being a democracy and the transparent government here doesn’t seems to be on high moral grounds as the old saying “where there is smoke there is fire”.

Author: Sanjoli Verma from Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur.

Editor: Silky Mittal, Junior Editor, Lexlife India.

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