PM-CARES Fund and public authority

The clarification issued by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) attracts the need to honestly debate on the very idea of the public authority and related issues.

Even as India continues to battle against the COVID-19 pandemic and extension of the lockdown by another month, many national policy observers were dismayed when they discovered that 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. The clarification issued by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) may not be a jaw-dropper but it sure attracts the need to honestly debate on the very idea of the public authority and related issues.
 
According to the clarification issued by the PMO, even though the Prime Minister is the ex-officio chairman of the trust and three cabinet ministers are its trustees, PM-CARES Fund is not a public authority under section 2 (h) of the Right to Information Act, 2005. This followed an RTI filed on April 1 by one Harsha Kandukuri, a student of the Azim Premji University, Bangalore. The PMO while stating that the Fund is not a public authority under section 2 (h) of the Right to Information Act, also said that it won’t be able to divulge information sought in the application.
 
It may be recalled that 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.
 
It has been reported that the opposition then 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, said a report by thewire.in.

The same report said that 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. Another news report in The Printquoted 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”.

The person who filed the RTI, Harsha Kandukuri has reportedly said that he would file a statutory appeal against the decision of the PMO. He said that by denying PM Cares Fund the status of ‘public authority’, it is only reasonable to infer that it is not controlled by the government. So now it is everyone’s duty to ask who is controlling the PM-CARES Fund? Asking this question, thewire.in also writes that the name, the composition of the trust, control, usage of emblem, government domain name everything signifies that it is a public authority despite the PMO claim.
 
The government of India’s 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, one should also be worried about how the fund is being operated. If the kind citizens of India has positively responded to the call of PM-CARES Fund, they also have a right to know where their contributions are going.    
    

First Published:June 1, 2020, 11:55 p.m.

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