From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Various funds mentioned in the newscard
Mains level : Right to Information Act and its limitations
We all know that the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund doesn’t come under the ambit of Right to Information (RTI). This oped seeks to discuss certain aspects of this issue.
- In a recent affidavit, the Delhi High Court was informed that the PM CARES Fund is not a Government of India fund and that the amount collected by it does not go to the Consolidated Fund of India is strange.
- This petition is seeking the PM-CARES fund to be declared as the “State” under Article 12 of the Constitution.
Intriguing facts about PM-CARES fund
- PM CARES has been created not by law, not by notification, but by the mere creation of a webpage, and set up last year in March to raise funds for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The page lists its structure, functions and duties in an arbitrary manner. The official appeals for funds are made under the national emblem.
- The most significant lie of this sworn statement is that the Government has no control over the Fund.
What is the case?
- The PM-CARES Fund was not subject to CAG audit since the Supreme Court regarded it as a public charitable trust.
- It is not under public scrutiny. Also contributions to it were 100% tax-free.
- It is accused that there was statutory fund already in existence under the Disaster Management Act of 2005 to receive contributions to finance the fight against a calamity.
What is RTI?
- RTI is an act of the parliament which sets out the rules and procedures regarding citizens’ right to information.
- It replaced the former Freedom of Information Act, 2002.
- Under the provisions of RTI Act, any citizen of India may request information from a “public authority” (a body of Government or “instrumentality of State”) which is required to reply expeditiously or within 30.
- In case of the matter involving a petitioner’s life and liberty, the information has to be provided within 48 hours.
About PM CARES Fund
- The PM CARES Fund was created on 28 March 2020 following the COVID-19 pandemic in India.
- The fund will be used for combat, containment and relief efforts against the coronavirus outbreak and similar pandemic like situations in the future.
- The PM is the chairman of the trust. Members will include the defence, home and finance ministers.
- The fund will also enable micro-donations. The minimum donation accepted is ₹10 (14¢ US).
The other funds
(1) National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF)
- The statutorily constituted NDRF was established under the Disaster Management (DM) Act of 2005.
- The NDRF is mandated to be accountable, and answerable under the RTI Act, being a public authority, and auditable by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.
(2) Disaster Response Fund
- The DM Act also provided for a Disaster Response Fund — state and district level funds (besides the national level).
- It also collects and uses the donations at the local level, with mandatory transparency and audit provisions.
(3) Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund
- There is the PMNRF operative since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. It was established with public contributions to assist displaced persons from Pakistan.
- The resources are now utilised primarily to render immediate relief to families of those killed in natural calamities and to the victims of the major accidents and riots.
- However, it has the President of India and the Leader of Opposition also as trustees.
Issues over PM-CARES Fund
- No defined purpose: It is deliberately ignored while a new, controversial, unanswerable, and ‘non-accountable vehicle is created; its character is not spelt out till today.
- Non-accountable: The government seems to consider statutory provisions for enquiry and information seeking to be embarrassing obstacles.
- Centralization of donations: It centralises the collection of donations and its utility, which is not only against the federal character but also practically inconvenient. The issue is seeming, the trusteeship of the fund.
Questions and gaps
- Law/statute: The PM CARES Fund was neither created by the Constitution of India nor by any statute.
- Authority: If that is the case, under what authority does it use the designation of the Prime Minister, designated symbols of the nation, the tricolour and the official (gov.in) website of the PMO, and grant tax concessions through an ordinance.
- Collection and dispensation: The amount received by the Fund does not go to the Consolidated Fund of India. If it goes to the CFI, it could have been audited by the CAG.
- Uncontrolled: The This Trust is neither intended to be or is in fact owned, controlled or substantially financed by any instrumentality of the any govt even being chaired by the PM.
Issue over tax benefits
- Income tax: An ordinance was promulgated to amend Income Tax Act, 1961 and declare that the donations to the PM CARES Fund “would qualify for 80G benefits for 100% exemption”.
- CSR Funds: It will also qualify to be counted as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) expenditure under the Companies Act, 2013.
- Foreign donations: It has also got exemption under the FCRA [Foreign Contribution Regulation Act] and a separate account for receiving foreign donations has been opened.
What can be inferred from all these?
- The Centre now considers it as another obstacle and has created a new trust with the Prime Minister and his Ministers only.
- The manner in which the PM CARES Fund was set up — with its acronym created to publicise the point that the PM cares for people — shows a bypassing of the statutory obligations of a public authority.
Query and response: Again ironical
- After initial denials, the Government has conceded it to be a public charitable trust, but still maintains that it is not a ‘public authority’.
- The point is that the PMO operates the Fund, but says it cannot supply any information about the PM CARES Fund because it is not a public authority.
Severe interpretations: Is it an Office of Profit?
- If the PM CARES Fund is unconnected with the Government, then the Fund could become an office of profit.
- And that could disqualify him and the three Ministers from holding those constitutional offices.
- In order to uphold transparency, the PM CARES Fund should be declared as a Public Authority under the RTI Act, and all RTI queries answered truthfully.
- The fund should be designated as a “public authority” under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act.