New Delhi: The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has clarified that the PM-CARES Fund, which has so far attracted a huge sum of donations to handle the challenges arising from the COVID-19 crisis, is not a public authority. This, even though the PM is the ex-officio chairman of the trust, and three cabinet ministers are its trustees.
In a reply to an RTI filed on April 1 by Harsha Kandukuri, a student of the Azim Premji University, Bangalore, the PMO stated that the Fund is not a public authority under section 2 (h) of the Right to Information Act, 2005, and therefore it won’t be able to divulge information sought in the application.
The fund – Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund –was created on March 28 to deal with any emergency posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to news reports, while PM Narendra Modi would be its ex-officio chairman, its trustees were to be Union home minister Amit Shah, defence minister Rajnath Singh and finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
The opposition had questioned the need for a creation of the Fund as the PM’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) already exists to receive donations for such emergencies.
Looking at the composition of the trust members of PM Cares Fund, Kandukuri had sought copies of the trust deed and all government orders, circulars and notifications related to its creation and functioning. By then, various ministries and government departments had issued circulars to its employees to contribute one day’s salary to the Fund. The donation could be paid between this May to next March, covering the entire fiscal year.
In some cases, the donations raised voluntarily for PMNRF too have been directed to the PM-CARES Fund by the administration.
The PM-CARES Fund has reportedly received Rs 6,500 crore in the first week of its launch. The total donation received so far is a whopping Rs 10,000 crore. A news report in The Print quoted government officials as saying, “The bulk of the contribution comes from corporate, the public sector undertakings and central ministries and departments. The central public sector enterprises under the ministries of power and new and renewable energy had contributed Rs 925 crore by April 3, while public sector oil companies including ONGC, IOC, Bharat Petroleum had contributed over Rs 1,000 crore.”
However, in reply to his RTI, the PMO said it is not a public authority, adding, “However, relevant information in respect of PM-CARES Fund may be seen on the website pmcares.gov.in.”
As per the RTI Act, a public authority means any authority, body or institution of self-government established or constituted a)by or under the constitution; b) by any other law made by parliament; c) by any other law made by the state legislature and d) by notification issued or order made by the appropriate government. It also includes “body owned, controlled or substantially financed; non-governmental organisation substantially financed directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government”.
Speaking to LiveLaw, Kandukuri said he would file a statutory appeal against the decision of the PMO.
“By denying PM Cares Fund the status of ‘public authority’, it is only reasonable to infer that it is not controlled by the Government. If that is the case, who is controlling it? The name, the composition of the trust, control, usage of emblem, government domain name everything signifies that it is a public authority. By simply ruling that it is not a public authority and denying the application on RTI Act, the government has constructed walls of secrecy around it. This is not about lack of transparency and denying the application of the RTI Act to the fund, we should also be worried about how the fund is being operated. We do not know the decision making process of the trust and safeguards available, so that the fund is not misused. For a trust which is created and run by four cabinet ministers in their ex-officio capacities, denying the status of ‘public authority’ is a big blow to transparency and not to mention our democratic values,” Kandukuri told the legal news site.
He had sought reply from the PMO on 12 points regarding the Fund.
Earlier, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office had clarified to the NDTV that it wouldn’t audit PM-CARES Fund as it is “a charitable organisation” and “based on donations from individuals and organisations”. The PMNRF too is not audited by CAG but by an independent auditor outside of the government.
In 2018, a division bench of the Delhi high court was split on the issue of whether PMNRF is a public authority under the RTI Act and is liable to disclosure of information to applicants. While Justice Ravindra Bhat felt it was a public authority, Justice Sunil Gaur differed. The matter was thereafter forwarded to the acting chief justice of the HC for an opinion. The issue is still pending.