New Delhi: The prime minister by virtue of his office or post is the chairman of several religious, cultural and even financial trusts. However, in response to a Right to Information (RTI) query recently, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) denied knowledge about these, citing Section 7(9) of the RTI Act which exempts providing any information if “it would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question”.
It is ironical that the PMO cited the section of RTI Act for a piece of information which should be readily available with it. Several RTI activists have been insisting that 70% of the RTI applications pertain to information which should ideally be provided by the Central or state governments as part of proactive disclosure under Section 4 of the RTI Act.
Somnath Temple trust recently elected Modi as its chairperson
In the immediate case, the Haryana-based advocate Hemant Kumar filed an online RTI with the PMO on January 19, seeking information about the names of all the trusts (public or private) which are being headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi by virtue of his office or post.
Talking to The Wire, Kumar said he filed the RTI application just a day after he got the news that the trustees of the Shree Somnath Trust in Gujarat chose Modi as their next chairman. “The prime minister too accepted the responsibility, expressing hope that together, the Trust will be able to further improve infrastructure, accommodation arrangements, recreation facilities and help establish stronger connection of the pilgrims with the country’s great heritage.”
Stating that “it was even reported that former PM Morarji Desari too had headed the Trust,” Hemant said this drew his curiosity about how many trusts the prime minister of India heads in his official capacity.
However, he said, he was surprised and astonished at the reply, dated February 15, he received from the central public information officer (CPIO) in the PMO. “Parveen Kumar declined/rejected the RTI request asserting that the information available, if any, is not maintained in compiled form in the office. Its collection and compilation from different units/files would disproportionately divert the resources of the office from the efficient discharge of its normal functions, thereby attracting the provisions under section 7(9) of the RTI Act, 2005,” the reply said.
‘PM heads select few trusts, details should have been easily available’
Reacting to this reply, Hemant wondered how gathering information about the names of the trusts which Modi is heading as prime minister of India can cause disproportionate diversion of resources in the PMO. He said it was unlikely that the PM would be heading such a large number of trusts in the country that it would be a Herculean task for his office to compile the information from different sources.
Furthermore, he said, the reply did not mention the name of the first appellate authority (FAA) in the PMO. It is required under the Act that the FAA’s details be provided so that an RTI applicant, if he is not satisfied with the reply, can appeal.
PM also heads trust in-charge of PM CARES Fund
Apart from the Shree Somnath Trust, there are a few other trusts which the PM heads, information about which is available in the public domain.
One of these is the trust which manages the PM CARES Fund. A public charitable trust under the name of ‘Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund’ (PM CARES Fund)’ was set up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The objectives of the fund say it was set up “keeping in mind the need for having a dedicated national fund with the primary objective of dealing with any kind of emergency or distress situation, like posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to provide relief to the affected”.
The Prime Minister was made the ex-officio chairman of the PM CARES Fund and the defence, home and finance ministers are ex-officio trustees.
Opposition slammed creation of PM CARES
The constitution of the fund had drawn a lot of criticism from the opposition, which had questioned the need for its creation when the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) already existed.
As per the details provided on fund’s official web page, the chairperson of the board of trustees (the prime minister) shall have the power to nominate three trustees. The fund, the site declares, “consists entirely of voluntary contributions from individuals/organizations and does not get any budgetary support.”
Incidentally, the PM CARES Fund qualifies for 80G benefits for 100% exemption under the Income Tax Act, 1961. Donations to it also qualify to be counted as corporate social responsibility (CSR) expenditure under the Companies Act, 2013. The fund was also granted exemption under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) and a separate account for receiving foreign donations was opened.
PM also heads Jallianwala Memorial Trust
The prime minister is also the chairperson of some cultural trusts like the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust, Amritsar.
This trust manages the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, which is a public garden in Amritsar, established in 1951 by the Government of India, to commemorate the massacre by British occupying forces of peaceful celebrators including unarmed women and children, on the occasion of the Punjabi New Year on April 13, 1919.
While the PM heads this trust, it also has as its members the minister in-charge of culture, the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, and the governor and chief minister of Punjab.