PM-CARES (Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations) Fund is a pool of money, that came into being on 28 March this year, with the stated goal of receiving 'voluntary contributions' and providing relief and assistance in prevention of Covid during the alarming spread of Covid pandemic. Right at its inception, doubts were cast about the the bona fides of its formation when the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF), under the chairmanship of the prime minister himself, was already in existance. Further, not many had a precise notion about the legal character and structure of the new entity. Other than the repeated calls to contribute to PM-CARES fund, those in responsible positions did not disclose any other details. Only after RTI activists and media persons diligently chased the matter, did its details start trickling in one after the other.
In the process of such pursuit of information it transpired that it was an institution outside the jurisdiction of right to information. It also was revealed that PM-CARES was a public charitable trust with the prime minister as chairman and finance minister, defence minister and home minister as ex-officio trustees. By this time, the Fund has collected crores of rupees. It was in this context that lawyer Manohar Lal Sharma filed a public interest litigation (PIL) on behalf of Cenre for Public Interest Litigation, with the Supreme Court seeking that the money collected by the Fund, for which RTI was not applicable, be transferred to NDRF which was under RTI. The said petition was rejected on 18 August by a three-judge bench of Justice Ashok Bhushan, R Subhash Reddy and MR Shah.
The Supreme Court bench also reckons that PM-CARES Fund is a charitable trust, its administration is vested with the trustees, it will not come under the scope of RTI, its auditing is not to be conducted by CAG and that its books will be audited by private chartered accountants. However, the funds to its credit cannot be transferred to NDRF for which RTI applies. And as per the court judgement, one has to put trust in the wisdom of the trustees. This need not come as a big surprise from the Supreme Court. The apex court had issued an order saying there was no evidence for the argument that Babri masjid was built after demolition of a temple there and that the demolition was a criminal act, but still the land where the mosque stood should be handed over for constructing a temple. Perhaps the major significance of the judgement about the Fund is that it acts as yet another reminder of the direction our judicial institutions are traversing. The sum and substance of the order is that we have to put full faith and trust in the wisdom of the prime minister and the subordinate ministers.
When NDRF was already in existence and operation, why would it be that a new body was constituted all of a sudden? The unusual move can be seen only as part of the machinations indulged in by the Modi government in the matter of our national mechanisms and constitutional institutions. As a matter of fact, what Narendra Modi clinches through this is an opportunity for his own party and himself to handle outside the scanner of CAG audit and Right to Information, the huge funds netted for fighting Covid-19 at their whim. Another piece of news that came close on the heels of the Supreme Court would provide the answer to why PM-CARES fund should be there at all. In reply to a query raised under RTI Act about the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds of public sector undertakings (PSU), it was stated that Rs 2105 Cr was transferred from CSR funds of 38 PSU's to PM-CARES fund. CSR funds are normally spent on diverse kinds of relief activities in the society. Private entities are also obliged to set apart a mandated percentage of their profit to CSR. When PM-CARES fund claims those hue sums, crores that should have been spent in the communities are being garnered by PM-CARES fund. As for giant private enterprises, allocating huge funds to PM-CARES will in all probability be used for high-level lobbying. And this will also facilitate an undesirable corridor companionship between private tycoons and the government plus the ruling parties. All this becomes a matter of concern because the transparency that should govern a fund controlled by the prime minister, and involving hundreds of crores of rupees, is lacking in PM-CARES. But then, what else to expect from a ruling dispensation which shuns the very concept of transparency?