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Shot in the Back: PM CARES Hasn't Given Rs 100 Crore to Develop COVID Vaccines, RTI Reply Says

None of the departments associated with India's COVID-19 vaccine development efforts received any money from the fund.

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New Delhi: Even as the COVID-19 pandemic had its second-worst impact in India, among the world’s countries, and as its vaccine supply has suffered through many ups and downs, the PM CARES Fund, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi set up to deal “with any kind of emergency or distress situation,” failed to allocate the sum of Rs 100 crore it promised for vaccine development.

This came to light in response to a query filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

In response to the application by activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd.), the Union health ministry admitted: “So far, as information from [Health and Public Education] Division is concerned, it is stated that no funds have been received from PM CARES Fund for vaccine development.”

Batra received the reply nearly four months after he filed his application, in July 2021, and after multiple reminders filed with various authorities.

A press release from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) dated May 13, 2020, said that the Modi government will provide Rs 3,100 crore to help India’s fight against COVID-19. The release added: “To support the COVID-19 vaccine designers and developers, an amount of Rs 100 crore will be given from PM CARES Fund as a helping hand to catalyse vaccine development, which will be utilised under the supervision of Principal Scientific Advisor.”

Also read: Why PM-CARES Is a ‘Government Fund’ and Well Within RTI Purview

The latter is currently K. VijayRaghavan. The Wire has emailed him for a comment and will update this article as and when he responds.

Batra filed an application under the RTI Act with the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of the health ministry on July 16, 2021, seeking details of expenses through the PM CARES Fund. Specifically, he asked for “financial year wise total amount of PM CARES Fund received by the Government of India for vaccine development relating to the COVID-19 pandemic”. He also sought the names of public authorities, companies, organisations and entities involved in the vaccine development process.

The Office of CPIO of the COVID-19 Vaccine Administration Cell said on the same day that “no fund has been received from PM Care Fund to this office for ‘vaccine development’.” It also said it was transferring the application to the PMO, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Department of Biotechnology.

Subsequently, the first appellate authority said the ICMR had “disposed of” of Batra’s query on August 9, adding “ICMR has not received any funds for COVID-19 vaccine development through PM-CARES Fund”. The PMO followed suit on September 10.

The Department of Biotechnology’s status said Batra’s request had been “transferred to other public authority” (sic) on August 9.

In response to the PMO’s unspecific response, Batra filed the first appeal on September 8, 2021. Two days latter, the CPIO of the office said: “so far as this office is concerned, it is stated that PM CARES Fund is not a public authority under the ambit of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005.”

On October 1, 2021, the status on the PMO appellate authority portal was “appeal disposed of”. Batra received a letter on the same day from the CPIO of the PMO stating: “PM CARES Fund is not a public authority under the ambit of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005,” so “no further information could be shared with you”.

Batra was also informed that his application had been transferred to NITI Aayog and the Central Drug Standards Control Organisation (CDSCO).

On September 14, the CDSCO website said it had replied to Batra’s application thus:

“CDSCO is a regulatory agency and regulates quality, safety and efficacy of drugs including vaccines as per New Drugs and Clinical Trials Rules, 2019 under Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 and has no role with respect to funding and budget allocation for vaccine development.”

Batra said he’d sent seven reminders to the first appellate authority plus an “urgent” email to the health ministry’s nodal CPIO to intervene – before he received the updates that he did.