Money collected under the PM CARES Fund for the coronavirus pandemic need not be transferred to National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF), the Supreme Court said today, adding that it cannot direct the government to do so and that funds collected by the PM Cares Fund are entirely different and that these are funds of charitable trusts. The government is free to transfer money to the disaster response fund if it feels appropriate to do so, the top court said.
The Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, R Subshash Reddy, and MR Shah also held that any contribution or grant can be credited to the NDRF and anyone can contribute to this fund as a voluntary contribution.
The top court said as it heard a petition against the PM CARES fund by an NGO called Centre for Public Interest Litigation, seeking a direction that all present and future fund collections contributions and grants under the PM CARES Fund for the COVID-19 pandemic should be transferred to National Disaster Response Fund. The petition said PM CARES fund violates the provisions of Disaster Management Act.
The court also said there is no need for a new plan and that one under the National Disaster Management Act is enough to deal with COVID-19.
The MHA had argued before the Court that the PM CARES fund was a public charitable trust and whoever wants can voluntarily donate in it. This submission was contested by Senior Counsel Dushyant Dave, representing the petitioner, who highlighted that while nobody’s bona fides were under the scanner, the only question was pertaining to the circumventing of the law for setting up of the PM CARES Fund.
The audit mechanism of the PM CARES was also questioned, with Dave pointing out that the NDRF has to be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) while “PM CARES is audited by some private auditor”. A strong argument was made for the PM CARES Fund to at least be audited by the CAG.
Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal, who was appearing in a connected matter related to drawing up a National Disaster Management Plan, said that since contributions to PM CARES are eligible for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) benefits, corporates and others would not have incentive to donate to the NDRF.
The petition filed by CPIL also raised the issue of drawing up a National Plan under the Disaster Management Act in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had produced this plan before the Court at an earlier instance.
The Centre, in its affidavit filed in the matter, defended the creation of the PM CARES Fund and opposed the transfer of these funds to the NDRF. The affidavit says,
“There does exist a National Disaster Response Fund as stipulated under Section 46 of Disaster Management (DM) Act, 2005 which so far consisted of the fund in the form of budgetary provisions made by the Central Government in NDRF and State Governments and Central Government in State Disaster Response Funds without any private contribution.”
It was earlier revealed through a Right to Information (RTI) response received by a lawyer that the Fund does not come under the scope of “public authority” under the RTI Act.