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New Delhi: Retired Supreme Court judge Justice Madan B. Lokur on Tuesday, October 12, raised concerns about the transparency of funds collected under the Prime Minister Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situation Fund (PM-CARES Fund), Live Law reported.
“We know government employees have donated money. CSR has been diverted towards PM-CARES. But how much money is there under the Fund? We don’t know. How has it been spent? We don’t know. We were told that it would be utilised for tackling COVID, buying ventilators. What actually has happened? We don’t know,” Justice Lokur said, speaking about the fund.
Justice Lokur’s remarks came during a lecture on the RTI Act at an event hosted by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) to mark the completion of 16 years since the Right to Information Act was enacted in India.
The former Supreme Court judge also brought up the audit reports which are displayed on the PM-CARES website. From the data available in the audit report for the period of March 28, 2020 – March 31, 2020, Justice Lokur extrapolated that the fund could potentially hold “hundreds and thousands of crores”. “But where is this money going? We don’t know,” he said.
Further, he noted that the audit report for the 2020-21 period is yet to be prepared. He added that, “… nobody has any clue about the audit reports.”
Justice Lokur’s questioning of the fund comes at a time when the Delhi high court is hearing a petition to bring the PM-CARES fund under the purview of the RTI Act. The government, in an affidavit filed with the court on September 14, claimed that the fund had been set up as a charitable trust, not under any law made by the parliament or state legislature and thus does not qualify as a “public authority” under the RTI Act.
Interestingly, on the question of transparency, the affidavit cited the very audit reports (prepared by a chartered accountant from a panel constituted by the comptroller and auditor general of India) which Justice Lokur picked out in his lecture.
During his lecture, Justice Lokur spoke about various other ways the RTI Act has been subverted as well. In particular, he brought up the COVID-19 pandemic in the country and how no information has been forthcoming about the number of people who really died due to COVID or due to a lack of oxygen. “…this kind of information is important to know how to plan for the future,” he noted.
He even noted that, when the government was asked by the Supreme Court about migrant workers and their struggles during the onset of the pandemic, it had said that it had no information on how many people had to migrate.
Speaking more generally about the RTI Act, Justice Lokur said, “Information is vital for the functioning of a democratic republic. The idea is to have good governance, transparency and accountability.”
He further spoke of the responsibility of the government to proactively disclose information, as mentioned in Section 4 of the RTI Act. ”…we shouldn’t have to ask the government for information,” he said.
Justice Lokur also made mention of a 2021 report by rights body, the Satark Nagrik Sangathan, which detailed the performance of various information commissions across the country. The report talks about the large number of vacancies in these commissions and the consequent pendency of cases before them and the high estimated waiting time to dispose of the same.
This, Justice Lokur remarked, was despite a 2019 Supreme Court judgement which directed vacancies in these commissions to be filled within six months.
RTI Act is being subverted by information not being collected, not being shared, appointments not being made, persons not applying are getting selected and appeals being kept pending,” Justice Lokur noted.
Justice Lokur, however, did commend Rajasthan for starting a ‘Jan Soocha’ portal where information is freely available to all and noted that he hoped other state’s would follow Rajasthan’s lead.
He concluded his lecture by expressing that he hoped the example of Rajasthan would usher in a change by which information is freely provided by the government and people do not have to “go around asking for information.”