On March 28, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced through a press note the creation of Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (hereinafter ‘PM CARES Fund’) to aid the citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, PM CARES Fund was received with severe criticism.
Two days after the announcement of the PM CARES Fund, Sri Harsha Kandukuri filed a Right to Information (RTI) Application requesting the composition and objectives of PM CARES Fund, which has been stated to be a public charitable trust. With 30 days gone and no response from the government’s side, he appealed, and on May 29 received a response that PM CARES Fund is not a ‘public authority’ as stated under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (hereinafter ‘RTI Act’), and therefore, the information sought need not be divulged. Another RTI Application was refused on the grounds of that the Hon’ble Supreme Court had observed that “indiscriminate and impractical demands under the RTI Act… would be counterproductive.”
Another justification for the refusal to divulge information under the RTI Act was given – that the Trust was made merely by the Prime Minister’s appeal, and not by any government order, and therefore did not exist as a ‘public authority.’
Such response from the government led to major public dissatisfaction, and several issues were brought up. Lack of transparency regarding the collection and disbursement of funds, the lack of auditing which has now been rectified (albeit with its own fallacies) and the need for such a Trust to exist, when the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (hereinafter ‘PMNRF’) already exists, and is essentially the same as PM CARES Fund. Despite public outcry, the government has failed to address these issues.
On June 29, the Appellate Authority of the Prime Minister’s office, without specifically addressing any of the issues in the appeal, yet again stated that the Trust was not a ‘public authority’, and therefore the RTI Act would be inapplicable and any information sought shall not be divulged.
A petition was filed before the High Court of Delhi (hereinafter ‘High Court’) seeking the declaration that the PM CARES Fund is a public authority, stating that the “name, composition of the trust, control, usage of emblem, (and) government domain name” which signifies that the Trust is owned and controlled by the Government, and therefore a public authority, and subsequently would come under the purview of the RTI Act. On June 10, The High Court asked the Centre to file a reply and adjourned the matter till August 28.
The opaqueness and transparency surrounding the PM CARES Fund has brought up several issues, none of which have been adequately resolved by the Government. This leads to more doubts in the minds of citizens vis-à-vis the activities of the Government and the efforts it has taken to aid and guide its citizens through this pandemic. A possible solution would be to transfer the funds from PM CARES Fund to the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF), which is subject to both Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) and the RTI Act. Albeit it being a step taken too late, if taken at all, it would be better than the situation that is present at hand.