Soon after the disaster in Uttarakhand on February 7, 2020, when a deluge washed away two hydropower plants and left at least 100 dead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that a sum of Rs2 lakh each would be given to the families of each of the dead, and Rs50,000 each to those who have sustained injuries. PM Modi’s monthly salary is Rs2 lakh.
The compensation amount offered to the family of those who have lost loved ones is less than half the monthly salary of the President of India.
In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice political philosopher John Rawls argued that inequality undermines democracy –inequality could only be justified to the extent that it provided material benefits to the least well off, explained one commentator marking 50 years of the publication of the book.
With this background, it may be pertinent to examine the arrangements to compensate those who have died in the tragedy of February 7. The sum of Rs2 lakh each, the prime minister announced, would be paid from the PM’s Relief Fund. There is another similar fund, PM Cares, set up soon after the country went into lockdown to supposedly prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in March 2020. No compensation is ever announced by PM Modi from PM Cares, which also does not fall under the purview of the Right to Information Act as it is registered as a public charitable fund.
By December 2020, in just 10 months, over Rs3000 crore had been gathered in it. This sum has been computed on the basis of announcements made by donors – the government is not obliged to share information about funds gathered under PM Cares, and allocations from it too are not transparent; firms contracted to supply medical equipment to deal with the pandemic were not chosen for their expertise or ability, it appeared, but because of their proximity to people in power. Ventilators purchased with PM Cares funds turned out sub-standard, some went up in flames.
Commodore Lokesh Batra (retired) read news reports that said Indian embassies abroad had worked to mobilize donations to this fund, and filed Right to Information petitions in July 2020 seeking information from the embassies of India in South Korea, UAE, Algeria, Thailand and other countries, wishing to know the modes used to publicize this fund and the entities approached for this purpose by Indian missions abroad.
Many embassies abroad responded that the fund had been publicized on their website and social media accounts. The Qatar Embassy even listed the three “outside” sources that had made donations – contractors and a firm offering consultancy services. It also listed 22 staff members who had made donations.
Given that India’s diplomatic missions abroad have been publicizing the PM Cares Fund, must not Indian citizens be provided information about the source of these funds, and the purpose for which allocations are made? In April last year, Congress president Sonia Gandhi called on the prime minister to merge the PM Cares funds with the PM’s National Relief Fund to “ensure efficiency, transparency, accountability and audit in the manner in which these funds are allocated and spent”.
Given that compensation to poor people who bear the brunt of both natural and man-made disaster is offered from PMNRF rather than PM Cares, it would be a good idea to heed the advice of the leader of the Opposition. It would also pave the way to offering a higher sum in compensation to the working poor, without making it seem like the whole lifetime of a poor worker is worth no more than one month of PM Modi’s life.
Rosamma Thomas is a journalist