New Delhi: The issue of non-transparency of the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund ran into a heated debate in parliament on Saturday. A line of opposition leaders made interventions in the Lok Sabha to question and criticise the manner in which the Union government has been withholding information about the Fund, which is meant to be spent on pandemic relief, while at the same time allowing donations from multiple sources, including those from abroad, into the corpus.
Congress’s Lok Sabha leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury questioned the Narendra Modi government over the need of such a private trust-like fund when there is an existing Prime Minister National Relief Fund (PMNRF). Chowdhury, during the discussion on the Taxation and Other Laws (Relaxation and Amendment of Certain Provisions) Bill, 2020 in Parliament, said, “I want to ask our finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, what is the need for creating a parallel fund when we already have PMNRF?”
“It appears to have been created to conceal the donations of private persons and corporates,” he said.
He also took a dig at the government for having taken loans from Chinese banks amidst a border stand-off between the two countries. “I also want to ask our FM if it’s true that you took a loan from Chinese banks even after our Indian Army personnel were fighting in the Galwan valley. How much loan has been taken from China since April?” he asked.
Chowdhury’s comments led to uproar between the opposition and treasury benches, with the junior minister for finance and corporate affairs Anurag Thakur alleging that the PMNRF functions like the Gandhi family’s private property, while PM-CARES is a registered trust. “The first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru constituted the PMNRF in 1948. PMNRF is still not registered. The members of the trust were Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the President of Indian National Congress and a nominee of Tata Trust,” Thakur, known for his provocative and communal statements, said.
“The PM-CARES fund was registered on March 27, 2020, under the 1908 Act. An independent auditor was appointed. Nobody is forced to donate to this fund. The members of the trust are all ex officio members such as Prime Minister, minister of defence, minister of home affairs and minister of finance,” he added.
The junior minister said that the Fund was constituted as a trust with the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, Home Minister and Finance Minister as ex-officio members, and is audited by independent auditors — SARC and Associates — who also audit the PM National Relief Fund. He also added that no money from the Consolidated Fund of India goes into the PM-CARES.
However, that cut no ice with opposition members, with TMC MP Mahua Moitra interjecting to say that the Fund was a “black hole” which had no accountability. She pointed out that at least 38 public sector companies donated Rs 2,100 crore to the PM CARES – around 70% of the corpus – which is all the more reason for the government to be transparent on all dealings made through the Fund. The Krishnanagar MP also lambasted the government for not having returned the donation made to the Fund by Chinese firms like TikTok, which the government banned in the aftermath of the Ladakh stand-off between the two countries.
She also questioned tax relaxations and CSR tag given to the donors. She highlighted the fact that while PSUs are not allowed to donate to the PMNRF, they have been allowed to contribute to PM-CARES. She likened the PSUs to “courtiers of the emperor giving gifts to the emperor out of public money”.
Kerala’s Revolutionary Socialist Party leader N.K. Premachandran, reiterated the point about the necessity of PM-CARES, when a similar corpus already existed. “I can’t understand the logic to have a separate fund. What is the difference between the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund and the PM-CARES Fund,” he said.
Congress’ Manickam Tagore said while the PM-CARES lacks transparency, it also remained outside the ambit of audit by the Comptroller Auditor General of India and Parliament, and that is what made the Fund problematic.
Despite all the objections, the Union government could get the Taxation and Other Laws (Relaxation and Amendment of Certain Provisions) Bill 2020, passed easily because of its overwhelming support in the lower house. Although the Bill gives relief to taxpayers from a number of compliance requirements, it has also provided for a deduction for donations made to the PM-CARES Fund under section 80 (G). It will be taken up in the Rajya Sabha before the session ends on Wednesday.
Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman defended the PM CARES, and asked why PMNRF had not been registered as a Trust despite being in operation for years. “Like charity, transparency should start from home,” she said, adding that PM-CARES is registered as a public charitable trust but PMNRF is not.
“Only Congress president is a member of the PMNRF. Why wasn’t there a Jana Sangh representative? How is transparency achieved by only the Congress party president as part of the PMNRF?” she said. However, neither she nor Thakur answered questions of accountability and transparency which had been raised against the Fund, and spent most of their time in attacking the Congress.
Responding to the allegations, Congress attacked the BJP for allegedly deflecting the issue at hand, and posed counter-questions to the BJP.
“Will the BJP, like the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation has done, ask the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (‘RSS’) to make public the list of all its donors and the amounts received including from all foreign sources including individuals, entities, organisations and governments,” it asked. It also asked the BJP whether think tanks like Vivekananda Foundation and India Foundation, which are considered to be associated with the saffron party, should declare their donors. The grand-old party also said that donations made to BJP through electoral bonds should also be made public.