Despite the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (PMNRF) existing through the past 70 years and operational, and that out of the Rs783 crore, only Rs212 crore have been spent as of 2019, prime minister (PM) Narendra Modi last week announced the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund’ (PM CARES Fund).
Little is known about the constitution of the PM CARES Fund except that donations have been pouring in, ever since its launch. It should be a public authority since the money is aimed at financing measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic and therefore, must come under Section 4 disclosures of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. However, there is no separate website for the PM CARES Fund, nor has it been included in the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund website https://pmnrf.gov.in/en/
The home page of the Prime Minister of India’s website https://www.pmindia.gov.in/
describes the objective of the PM CARES Fund as follows: “Keeping in mind the need for having a dedicated national fund with the primary objective of dealing with any kind of emergency or distress situation, like the one posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to provide relief to the affected, a public charitable trust under the name of PM CARES Fund has been set up.’’
It also states that the Prime Minister is the Chairman of this trust and its members include the defence minister, the home minister and the finance minister.
“In the first place, what is the need of another public fund trust,” asks former central information commissioner (CIC) and RTI activist, Shailesh Gandhi, “when the PM Relief fund is operational and money to the tune of Rs500 odd crore is already available for dispersing at the moment? Considering thousands of crores of rupees would be donated to the PM CARES Fund, we, the public, have been totally kept in the dark as to what kind of a trust it is. What is the document submitted to the charity commissioner, if at all it is submitted? If Prime Minister Modi is the chairman of the trust, will he remain so, even after he ceases to be the PM? How does one figure out if it is a public authority?’’
According to a tweet by Prime Minister Modi, this fund was created as a result of many people wanting to contribute to the cause. He tweeted: “People from all walks of life expressed their desire to donate to India’s war against COVID-19. Respecting that spirit, the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund has been constituted. This will go a long way in creating a healthier India.’’
As for the objective of the Prime Minister National Relief Fund, it states: “The resources of the PMNRF are now utilized primarily to render immediate relief to families of those killed in natural calamities like floods, cyclones and earthquakes, etc. and to the victims of major accidents and riots. Assistance from PMNRF is also rendered to partially defray the expenses for medical treatment like heart surgeries, kidney transplantation, cancer treatment and acid attack etc.’’ Obviously, the coronavirus epidemic is new to Planet Earth so it could perhaps fall under 'natural calamities'.
The PMI website states “PM Narendra Modi has always believed and shown in actions that public participation is the most effective way to mitigate any issue and this is yet another example. This fund will enable micro-donations as a result of which a large number of people will be able to contribute with the smallest of denominations.” The fact that the fund will primarily consist of micro-donations from lakhs and lakhs of people, transparency under the RTI Act is imperative. A good example is of the AAP political party which uploads every donation on its website on a regular basis. However, Gandhi says, “AAP did it voluntarily; it was not mandatory but unless and until we understand the nature of the PM CARES Fund it is difficult to know whether it is a public authority or not under RTI and that is indeed worrisome.’’
Shailesh Gandhi was at the forefront of the RTI campaign to bring the PM Relief Fund and CM Relief Fund under the RTI Act. In 2008, the CIC had ordered that PM and CM Relief funds have to be placed under RTI. However, the PMI Relief Fund website shows you a mere graph of funds collected and spent, with no details at all. So much for the people to show their trust in such funds, though Mr Modi this time is sure to garner a large amount. Otherwise, even during floods or other natural calamities, people are looking out for credible NGOs to give their donations.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”