How much does the ‘PM CARE(s)?’

The controversy over the transparency of PM CARES Fund has attached itself to a fresh round of accusations. BJP’s Sambit Patra’s post on Twitter saying #PMCARES, which includes a viral picture of a ventilator with a ‘PM Cares’ sticker, is being questioned by the opposition, whether a single picture can justify the lack of transparency of the funds? Since the time of its announcement, several reports of unforeseen controversy has surrounded the fund that “cares” but does not “show” or prove its transparency in complete sense.

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In May, a petition was filed in the Delhi High court seeking that the PM-CARES Fund be declared a public authority, under the Right To Information (RTI) Act. Advocate Samyak Gangwal, at first had filed an online RTI application, seeking various details about the PM CARES Fund, along with its trust deed. With the absence of response within the statutory 30-day time limit, he filed an online RTI appeal, to which the PMO had responded that the “PM CARES Fund is not a public authority,” as per the ambit of Section 2[h] of the RTI Act, 2005.

The advocate has since filed a petition in the high court under the argument that the reluctance of the trustees of the funds in disclosing information cannot be considered since the fund has ‘been set up to fight COVID-19, which is a public cause.’ The next hearing of the case has been scheduled on August 28, pushed by a solid eight weeks’ time. This raises several apprehensions and questions as to whether the government is acting on behest of their personal interest.

In another instance, BarandBench recently reported on a Supreme Court petition that was filed seeking a direction to the Centre to transfer all contributions to the PM CARES fund set up for COVID-19 relief to the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF). 

Let’s take the case of the  Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF). When on March, 28, the decision of creating a separate fund (PM Cares), was announced, it was largely dug with questions as to what was the need to create a new fund, when PMNRF exists. The PMNRF is more representative of the concerns of Indians: Its committee includes, among others, the Prime Minister, the President of India along with the president of the Indian National Congress. Whereas, the body of  PM CARES solely consists of members from only one political party, that is, the Prime Minister, the Finance minister, the Minister of Home Affairs and the Minister of Defence.

According to reports, as of 2019, the PMNRF had an unused collection of Rs 3,800.44 crore. In spite of this, the Modi government established the PM CARES fund and even called in for donations for the same. Reportedly, the Indian Railway donated Rs 151 crore. The armed forces have collectively donated Rs 500 crore, put together contributions from the army, navy and air force, defence PSUs and employees of the defence ministry. While most of these contributions were voluntary, it was noted that government employees saw circulars doing rounds, ‘urging’ them to to contribute one day’s salary each month, if not give their objection in writing. Now this did leave them with much of a choice, but to contribute nevertheless.

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A Delhi-based chartered accountancy firm, SARC & Associates, has now been hired as an independent auditor for the PM CARES fund. The FAQs posted on the website of the Fund also said that the Prime Minister’s Office at Delhi’s South Block, will be its “head office”, and two PMO officials will administer the fund on an honorary basis. This clearly clarifies the fund is now an auditor-government run, non-public trust fund. 

The objectives of the PM CARES Fund in accordance to the website, consist of three points:

  • To undertake and support relief or assistance of any kind relating to a public health emergency or any other kind of emergency, calamity or distress, either man-made or natural, including the creation or upgradation of healthcare or pharmaceutical facilities, other necessary infrastructure, funding relevant research or any other type of support.
  • To render financial assistance, provide grants of payments of money or take such other steps as may be deemed necessary by the Board of Trustees to the affected population.
  • To undertake any other activity, which is not inconsistent with the above Objects.

This means that, PM-CARES fund is said to solely and entirely consist of ‘voluntary’ contributions from any individual(s) and/or organization(s), and does not receive budgetary support to further the cause. The fund also enjoys an FCRA (Foreign contribution regulation Act, 1976) exemption with a separate account for foreign donations. This enables the PM CARES fund to accept donations and contributions from individuals and organizations based in foreign countries. This exemption has been conveniently synced with PMNRF, which has also received foreign contributions as a public trust since 2011. But the question of accountability and transparency still remains intact. 

As of now, nothing is confirmed about PM CARES, the PMO, and the role of the newly hired auditor in this process. The need of PM CARES in alignment with the already existing and relatively more transparent funds with the same mission to accomplish, such as the PMNRF, has put the Modi government in a balustrade of several questions waiting to be answered. The hearing on June 10 resulted in the PMO filing an affidavit to challenge the various petitions filed towards PM CARES to be a “public authority.” Until August 28, whiff of doubt continues to linger in the air of one of the topmost pandemic-struck countries, India.

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