Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
On 28 March, Prime Minister Modi announced the setting up of the PM CARES Fund – its aim was to help those in distress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Donations poured in from every quarter. But do we, as citizens of this country, know how much money PM CARES has received?
The answer is NO.
So we ask - Why shouldn’t the PM CARES Fund come under the Right To Information or RTI?
Several RTI queries related to the Fund have been denied claiming that PM CARES is a 'charitable trust' and not a 'public authority'.
So first, lets look at the definition of a Public Authority under the RTI ACT -
“any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted by notification issued or order made by the appropriate Government.”
Given this definition, The Quint in assistance with transparency activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd) has identified at least five reasons to suggest that PM CARES is a public authority and is therefore liable to share information under RTI.
The Five Reasons
Reason #1– PM CARES was Set Up by the Govt
How do we say this?
Well, firstly, the setting up of the PM CARES Fund was notified to the public on 28th March by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs saying -
“The Government of India has set up the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund.” This clearly means that the Government of India has control over it.
Secondly, the office of the PM CARES Fund is in the Prime Minister’s Office in Delhi. Thirdly, just like the PM is Chairperson of the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund or PMNRF, the PM is also Chairperson of PM CARES as well.
In 2007, the then Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah passed an interesting order about the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. He said,
“Since PMNRF information is held by the PMO as a public authority, they are obliged to share it with citizens under the RTI Act.” - Going by that same logic PM CARES should also come under RTI, since it is also controlled by the PMO.
Reason #2 – Use of Govt Machinery to Promote PM CARES
On 30th March PM Modi, at a video conference with the heads of Indian Missions across the world, advised them to publicise the new PM CARES Fund to mobilise foreign donations.
The question is - Can govt officials and govt machinery be used to publicise PM CARES if it is only a charitable trust?
Take a look at what transparency activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd) found out from the Indian High Commission in Singapore - that the Singapore government refused to allow official channels to promote PM CARES as it called itself a charitable trust.
On the other hand, the Indian Embassy in Moscow told Batra in an RTI reply that PM CARES was given publicity on the Embassy’s website and social media pages.
Would any other charitable trust ever get publicity on any Indian Embassy website? Quite unlikely.
Reason #3 - Usage of GOV.IN in its Domain Name
Pmcares.gov.in is the website address of the PM CARES Fund. But the government guidelines say a GOV.IN domain name can be allotted to six categories of offices or public authorities,
- Apex offices like the President of India or the Prime Minister’s Office
- Govt Ministries or Departments
- State and Union Territory offices
- India’s Parliament
- Judicial bodies
- All other legislative bodies and government institutions.
So how did PM CARES manage to get a GOV.IN domain name when it does not fall under any of these categories?
Reason #4 – Tax Exemption Relief to PM CARES Donations
On 31st March, just 2 days after PM CARES was announced, a government Ordinance amended provisions of the Income Tax Act.
As a result, a donation made to the PM CARES Fund would be eligible for 100% tax deduction. This was clear use of government machinery to promote PM CARES.
Reason #5 – PM CARES is Eligible for CSR Funds
Just a day after the launch of PM CARES, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs issued a notification saying - “any contribution made by a Company to the PM CARES Fund shall qualify as Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR..”
After that, several Public Sector Units or PSUs did donate huge amounts to PM Cares.
For instance, Power Finance Corporation, donated Rs 200 crore. Multiple Public Sector Banks & Enterprises under the Finance Ministry together donated over Rs 200 crores as CSR funds to PM CARES.
Now we know PSUs come under RTI and are liable to share information under RTI, so in that case, why not PM CARES? Or at least PSU donations to PM CARES?
Former Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah told The Quint,
"“Whether PM CARES comes under RTI or not, any contribution to PM CARES by PSUs does come under the RTI.”" -
The fact is, several ministries and government departments have contributed to PM CARES.
But since PM CARES is not answerable under RTI, there is zero transparency and no one will ever know how much public money was donated and how it was utilised.
Is this fair? Clearly, No!
So can someone answer this question - Why is the PM CARES Fund shrouded in secrecy?
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