The PM CARES fund was established by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 28. The idea was to have a dedicated, national fund with the primary objective of dealing with any kind of emergency or distress situation like the COVID-19 pandemic. It also intended to provide relief to the affected, a public charitable trust under the name of ‘Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund’ (PM CARES Fund)’ has been set up.

The PM is the ex-officio Chairman, and other ex-officio trustees are the     Minister of Defence, Minister of Home Affairs and      Minister of Finance. The Chairperson has the power to nominate three trustees to the Board of Trustees. Any person appointed a Trustee is to function pro bono.

The PM CARES was exempt from Income Tax under 80 G of the act, and donations. Donations qualify for 80G benefits for 100% exemption under the Income Tax Act, 1961. They will also qualify to be counted as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) expenditure under the Companies Act, 2013. The normal procedure to get 80G and FCRA have been bypassed by the government. According to the press release issued by the Ministry of Finance on March 31, an Ordinance amending the provisions of the Income-tax Act to provide the tax exemption to PM CARES Fund along the same lines as those made available to PMNRF.

The PM CARES Fund has also got exemptions under the FCRA which enables it to accept foreign donations from individuals and organizations. Normally, getting FCRA is not possible (say it has been made very difficult and provide one instance) to the NGOs in India as MHA tighten the rope on NGOs. In this case also Ministry of Home Affairs bypassed the normal procedure for granting FCRA

PMO denied information under RTI Act 2005: In the capacity of an RTI activist, I filed an application with the PMO on May 1 to obtain crucial information related to PM CARES fund. The information sought included bylaws of PM CARES trust, copies of bank statement since its inception and details of staff appointed to operate the PM CARES trust. Surprisingly, the PMO rejected the application a day later stating “ the PM CARES fund is not a Public Authority under the ambit of section 2(h) of RTI Act 2005.

It is interesting to note that The PM CARES staff, infrastructure and funds are not in any way different from the Central government’s. Its Secretary holds the additional post who is none other than a central service officer and the operations is housed in the Prime Minister’s Office.

More important to note is that the Prime Minister of India, an elected official, and other important Ministers have requested donors contribute to the PM CARES fund and issued several press release appealing people and organizations which are published on PIB, using government machinery. What is also glaring the domain which was used. The website of the PM CARES www.pmcares.gov.in used domain gov.in which only provided to government agencies.

The Prime Minister National Relief Fund (PMNRF).

In the PMNRF Vs Aseem Takyar case Justice S. Ravindra Bhat of Delhi High Court said in that, the PMNRF is headed by a Prime Minister of India who is a Constitutional authority, and is administered by the Joint Secretary to the Prime Minister – as Secretary of the fund. In addition, who is assisted by the officer of the rank of a director. Furthermore, all disbursements from PMNRF are made solely on the discretion of the Prime Minister. He or she is a public authority and decisions taken by him or her with respect to operation of PMNRF cannot be said to be made in a personal capacity. The decisions of the Prime Minister in this regard must be taken to be official decisions. To say that the use of funds is a personal decision, is a half truth.

Justice Bhat cited the judgment of the Supreme Court in Thalappalam Service Coop. Bank (supra): “The RTI Act, therefore, deals with bodies which are owned, controlled or substantially financed, directly or indirectly, by funds provided by the appropriate Government and also non-government organisations substantially financed, directly or indirectly, by funds provided by the appropriate Government, in the event of which they may fall within the definition of Section 2(h)(d)(i) or (ii) respectively. As already pointed out, a body, institution or an organisation, which is neither “State” within the meaning of Article 12 of the Constitution or instrumentalities, may still answer the definition of public authority under Section 2(h)(d)(i) or (ii).”

Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, in view of the above, declared that “as is evident from foregoing, it can be reasonably concluded that there exists governmental control in the management of PMNRF. Therefore, the conditions in Clause of Section 2(h)(d) are satisfied. Accordingly, PMNRF is held to be a “public authority” within the scope of RTI Act”. He further stated that being a public body entrusted with the task of providing immediate relief from natural calamities, major accidents, serious ailments, riot, etc, the PMNRF should have disclosed the entire information about its transactions and fulfil its obligations under Section 4 of the RTI Act”.

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a press release on May 13 that PM CARES Fund Trust decided to allocate Rs. 3,100 Crore for fight against COVID-19. Out of this, a sum of approximately Rs. 2,000 crore will be earmarked for the purchase of ventilators, Rs. 1,000 crores will be used for care of migrant labourers and Rs.100 crores will be given to support vaccine development.

For augmenting the infrastructure to tackle COVID-19 cases across the country, 50,000 ‘Made-in-India’ ventilators will be purchased from PM CARES Fund at a cost of approximately Rs. 2,000 Crores. These ventilators will be provided to government run COVID hospitals in all States/UTs,for better treatment of the critical COVID-19 cases.

For strengthening the existing measures being taken for the welfare of the migrants and poor, the States/UTs will be given a lumpsum assistance of total Rs. 1000 Crore from PM CARES Fund. This amount would be provided to the States/UTs  for strengthening efforts in providing accommodation facilities, making food arrangements, providing medical treatment and making transportation arrangements of the migrants.

To support the COVID-19 vaccine designers and developers, an amount of Rs. 100 Crore will be given from PM CARES Fund as a helping hand to catalyse vaccine development, which will be utilized under the supervision of Principal Scientific Advisor.

Usually, citizens can file RTI to obtain information on different aspects of financial transactions from the government which makes them accountable. In this case, the allocation of Rs. 3,100 crore from PM CARES and proper utilization are questionable as it appears that the PMO does not want to be held accountable. A refusal to furnish information under the RTI Act is reflective of this. In a true democracy, citizens have the right to be informed and also have the right to ask questions. If citizens are empowered to do this it will ensure greater accountability and transparency in governance. The Right to Information Act has shown promise of empowering Citizens to get accountability and act as an enforcer of good governance able to transform India into a truly participatory democracy. Whenever there are major issues have arisen indicating a lack of governance in terms of proper public policy, or corruption, citizens can question and many have succeeded to expose them through the RTI Act, thus making successive governments accountable.

Therefore, the need of the hour is to hold the government accountable vis-a-vis the funds pouring into the account or accounts of PM CARES and declare this as a public authority and bring it under the ambit of section 4  of the RTI Act 2005. Furthermore, a demand must be made so that all regulations applicable to public trusts / societies shall apply to PM CARES as well.

It is out of good faith, empathy and a sense of responsibility that citizens of India, philanthropic and business organisations, have conscientiously made generous donations – and to the tune of several thousands – to the PM CARES fund. The least that the government can do is to be transparent and show where funds have come, how much money exists in the accounts and where this has been spent. The citizens deserve transparency and the move would certainly put unnerving questions to rest.

S Q Masood is RTI practitioner and Social Activist based in Hyderabad


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