NRF

The PM Cares (Prime Minister Citizens Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations) Fund, set up in March 2020 ostensibly to deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, is being widely publicized. Even private banks can now collect funds for PM Cares, and many of them have been reminding their customers that they are now authorized to collect such funds. What few citizens know, however, is that there is another fund they could contribute to that is more transparent, audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, and set up with the specific purpose of offering assistance to citizens in times of disaster – the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF).

Commodore Lokesh Batra, who has been campaigning for greater transparency in governance, says there is a need for greater publicity for this NDRF – it falls under the purview of the Disaster Management Act of 2005, and ordinary citizens will have access to details of funds collected under it and allocation from it, unlike PM Cares, which is registered as a public charity, not audited by the CAG and not under the purview of the Right to Information Act.

Given that the country has faced other natural disasters like the recent cyclones on the west and east coasts, even while coping with the coronavirus situation, the need for funding support for disaster relief operations cannot be overstated.

Meanwhile, the government has been doing next to nothing to publicize NDRF, while PM Cares receives much attention. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs announced that contributions of companies towards PM Cares in 2019-20 over and above the minimum prescribed by law can now be set off against the mandatory obligation for 2019-20.

Although the Disaster Management Act had been passed in 2005, no modalities for contributions to the fund had been put in place until 2020, when Commodore Batra wrote letters repeatedly to bureaucrats and filed petitions under RTI. A modality to collect donations was introduced in July 2020.

However, even today, the website of the NDRF does not show a visitor how he or she may donate, while the PM Cares website opens with “How to Donate”. During the period July 13, 2020 to February 26, 2021, only Rs 63,014 had been collected in contributions to NDRF. In contrast, by June last year, in just three months of its existence, PM Cares had attracted donations worth more than Rs9,000 crore.

The size of the donation to PM Cares is a concern also because of the lack of transparency in the manner of utilization of these funds – ventilators provided to hospitals treating Covid patients have malfunctioned, and news reports have shown how these machines were contracted out to firms owned by friends of members of the BJP.

People who had contributed to PM Cares Fund were also among those who found it hard to find a hospital bed for treatment when struck with Covid-19. Vijay Parikh, a resident of Ahmedabad, who had earlier donated Rs2.5 lakh to PM Cares tweeted that he was unable to find a bed for his mother, who passed away after struggling for breath with Covid.

Commentators have also noted the curious fact that while the PM Cares, like PM Modi himself, has been phenomenally successful in attracting donations, what the funds have been utilized for is so difficult to understand. Also, many of the corporate firms that have contributed generously to PM Cares have tightened their belts in the time of the pandemic by cutting staff salaries – Reliance Industries, for instance, contributed Rs500 crore, but also announced cuts of staff salaries. Engineering and technology firm Larsen & Toubro contributed Rs150 crore to PM Cares, yet its daily wage workers went on strike seeking payment.

Commodore Batra, whose series of letters to officials to start the NDRF and draw public donations bore fruit in July last year is now campaigning for greater publicity for this fund. He has continued to write to senior bureaucrats, including the home secretary and the member secretary, NDMA, asking them to widely publicize NDRF. He has also suggested that those donating to NDRF should get exemption from income tax. Contributions from abroad should be allowed without letting the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act be a barrier, he suggests.

Rosamma Thomas is a  freelance journalist


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