Since its creation 3 months ago, the PM CARES Fund, a self-aggrandizing acronym for Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund, has been shrouded in limited details. There is, for example, uncertainty about the criteria for past and future allocations and independence of the auditing firm, and the only information available about the trust deed is that registered under the Registration Act, 1908 at New Delhi on 27th March, 2020.
In the beginning of June, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO), PMO refused to divulge documents on the fund’s trust deed and the government orders, etc. relating to its creation and operation, in reply to an RTI. The CPIO stated that the fund “is not a Public Authority under the ambit of S. 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005.” A petition against this has been filed in the Delhi HC and the government has been asked to file a reply.
When pointed out the existence of PM National Relief Fund (PMNRF), the government has argued that the newer fund was created to suggest that this pandemic is a one-off event which demands our special attention and that PMNRF is a general fund. However, the objectives stated on the PM CARES website do not signify that it is only for dealing with the current public health crisis.
It would have been easier for the Prime Minister to simply rename PMNRF as PM CARES, but the situation would only have been minimally more transparent. PMNRF’s status as a ‘public authority’ under the RTI Act has been left in the balance after the central government appealed against a CIC Order directing the fund to be under the ambit of RTI, which eventually resulted in a split decision by a Delhi HC division bench in 2018. The CAG does not have the mandate to audit the collection and disbursal of either of these funds. For PM CARES, this job has been assigned to SARC & Associates, headed by a staunch and vocal supporter of the ruling dispensation.
In an effort to encourage donations, the government has taken some arguably laudable steps. Anyone who donates to the PM CARES Fund will be allowed 100% tax exemption under S. 80G of the Income Tax Act and any contribution by a corporate made towards the fund shall qualify as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) expenditure. In addition, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs has permitted contributions over and above the CSR limit to be offset against the CSR obligations arising in subsequent years, paving an easy track for corporates to fulfil statutory requirements.
The PM, as the fund’s ex-officio Chairperson of the trust, or senior cabinet ministers, as its trustees, have refrained from publishing detailed information on allocation and beneficiaries. The only announcement on allocation from this fund came one and a half months after it was found. When the fund describes itself as a ‘public charitable trust’ and the money is being raised on the basis of a public office to grapple with a public health emergency, every aspect of it screams ‘public’. For the trustees to now contend the fund to be outside the scope of RTI would be a blow to public trust.